CENTENNIAL | The life sentence delivered by a divided jury to Colorado theater shooter James Holmes averts an uncertain path to execution in a state that has put only one man to death in nearly a half-century.
Colorado rarely carries out capital punishment. Only one man has been put to death since 1967. But the mass murder of 12 defenseless theatergoers three years ago was so horrific that many observers predicted death would be the only possible outcome.
But capital punishment requires a unanimous verdict in Colorado, and the jury of nine women and three men failed to agree Friday on any of the murder counts. That means Holmes will automatically get a sentence of life without parole after his victims get one more chance to address the court, in hearings scheduled for Aug. 24-26.
On July 20, 2012, Holmes clad himself in body armor, packed an arsenal of weapons and opened fire on 400 unsuspecting people during a midnight premiere of “The Dark Knight Rises.” Seventy people were wounded or injured in their scramble to escape.
Prosecutors had refused a pre-trial defense offer to enter a plea deal that would have kept Holmes behind bars for life, calling him the personification of evil and saying that capital punishment was the only appropriate response.
District Attorney George Brauchler defended that decision Friday, declaring, “This guy went there in his heart with the intention to be the number one mass murderer in the history of this country, and he had the means to do it.”
The verdict averts an appeals process that would have kept Holmes in the public eye during decades of hearings and cost millions of taxpayer dollars. And there was no guarantee that the once-promising neuroscience student, now 27, would ever be executed.
At least one survivor sought consolation in the outcome.
“Now that we don’t have the death penalty, we don’t have to go through all the appeals,” said Lonnie Phillips, whose 24-year-old stepdaughter Jessica Ghawi was killed in the attack. “We want him to go into oblivion. We want him to never be seen or heard from again.”
The state’s last execution was in 1997: Gary Lee Davis received a lethal injection for a woman’s kidnapping, rape and murder.
Colorado remains politically divided on the death penalty. Lawmakers came within one vote of abolishing capital punishment in 2009. Opposition and support for the death penalty have long crossed party lines in Colorado, both in public opinion polls and in the Legislature, where lawmakers also tried unsuccessfully to abolish the death penalty in 1999 and 2013.
The state’s longest-serving death-row inmate, murder convict Nathan Dunlap, spent 20 years exhausting all of his appeals when Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, granted him an indefinite stay of execution in 2013. Dunlap was convicted in 1996 for the 1993 slayings of four people at a Chuck E. Cheese’s in Aurora, the same Denver suburb where the theater shootings happened. But Hickenlooper cited doubts about the fairness of the state’s death penalty process, and about access to the drugs needed to carry out the execution.
Two of the other three men on death row, Robert Ray and Sir Mario Owens, were sentenced in 2009 and 2008, respectively, and their appeals have yet to reach the state Supreme Court. Both were convicted in the 2005 slayings of Javad Marshall-Fields and his fiancee, Vivian Wolfe. Marshall-Fields was going to testify against Ray and Owens in a separate murder case.
Many victims’ relatives view capital punishment as a necessary avenue for justice, but it’s a hard road for all involved, said Democratic state Rep. Rhonda Fields, an Aurora lawmaker and Javad Marshall-Fields’ mother. She says she supports the death penalty but knows firsthand how painful the process can be.
“I’ve experienced it, and my heart goes out the victims’ families,” she said. “What is the price of justice, is what I come back to.”
Defense arguments about Holmes’ schizophrenia could have been grounds for a death penalty appeal, keeping him alive even longer. Experts on both sides testified that Holmes is mentally ill. Court-appointed psychiatrists found him delusional, believing his self-worth would increase with each life he took. Even when mentally ill killers are sentenced to death, the law requires that they remain sane enough to understand the nature of their punishment before an execution date can be set.
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