AURORA | After swiftly convicting him and moving through the sentencing phase, jurors in the trial of Aurora theater shooter James Holmes spared him from the death penalty Friday.
The jury said they couldn’t reach a unanimous verdict after almost a day of deliberation. Now the man who killed 12 and wounded 70 others in the July 20, 2012, shooting rampage at the Aurora Century theater will spend life in prison without the possibility of parole.
A three-day formal sentencing hearing is sated to start Aug. 24.
The verdict marked the first time the jury sided with the defense. In the guilt phase, they rejected Holmes’ insanity claims. In the sentencing phase, the jury twice sided with the prosecution, once ruling that Holmes’ crimes were aggravated enough to be eligible for death, and again when they said Holmes’ upbringing and mental health issues weren’t enough to outweigh the horror of his crime.
But on the question of whether Holmes should be executed for his crimes, the jury’s verdict came down on the side of the defense with no unanimous verdict.
Juror 17, an attorney who asked her name not be used, spoke to media and said that one juror was adamantly against a death sentence on account of Holmes’ mental illness, and that another two jurors were “still sort of on the fence.
“But we ended out deliberations when one absolutely wouldn’t move,” Juror 17 said, who noted that the jury’s request to watch video of the crime scene earlier Friday was an attempt to sway the hold-out juror.
“You can never be the same after hearing all that testimony, seeing all that evidence, seeing how the court process works from a different perspective,” Juror 17 said, “and just experiencing a lack of media for more than three months. It’s life-changing.” She added that the worst day for her during the trial was the day which the court viewed autopsy photos of the victims.
INSIDE THE COURTROOM
Holmes’ family stood along with James during the reading of the verdict; at one point, Arlene Holmes reached forward to grasp the hand of one of the public defender investigators nearby.
Holmes stood silently next to his lawyers as Judge Samour read the verdict shortly after 5 p.m. Friday. Throughout the trial, Holmes seemed to pay close attention to the proceedings but showed little emotion. He opted not to testify on his own behalf at any phase of the trial.
Theater shooting survivors Caleb Medley and Ashley Moser — who are both confined to whrelchairs after being shot in the attack — were seated in a line in the courtroom, and Moser rested her head on Medley’s wheelchair after the verdict was read. Moser lost her 6-year-old daughter Veronica in the shooting.
Ian Sullivan, Veronica’s dad, seemed to take the ruling harder than anyone. He balled his fists and wept as the verdict came down. Before the verdict was read, Sullivan glared at Holmes just as he had done three years ago when Holmes made his first court appearance three days after the shooting.
At the end of the hearing, Sullivan was the last of the victims to leave the courtroom, sitting with his head bowed for a few seconds after everyone else had left.
Elsewhere in the courtroom, Caleb’s father, Otis Medley, patted Lonnie Phillips — stepfather of shooting victim Jessica Ghawi — on his shoulder and said, “I’m so sorry.”
Before the verdict was read, prosecutors appeared calm while the defense looked tense. District Attorney George Brauchler chatted with other prosecutors and police officers near the prosecution table. At the defense table, each of the five lawyers sat mostly silently and appeared worried.
The jury foreman appeared to glare at Holmes during the reading of the verdict, and he was seen tearing up and emotional as the jurors exited the courtroom after being released from service.
As the crowd from the courtroom exited into the hallways of the justice center, a voice could be heard in the crowd repetitively, “At least there’s no appeal.”
THE ROAD TO THE VERDICT
Holmes never denied his guilt but pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. His lawyers argued he was schizophrenic and in the throes of a psychotic breakdown at the time of the shooting, but the jury rejected that argument and convicted him of murder.
At sentencing, the defense argued that Holmes’ mental illness was reason enough to spare his life, but jurors again rejected that.
Public defender Tamara Brady said during her closing argument Thursday she didn’t want to diminish the killings, but she pleaded with the jury to give Holmes a life sentence instead of death.
“The deaths of all of those people cannot be answered by another death,” she said. “Please, no more death.”
REACTIONS TO THE VERDICT
District Attorney George Brauchler was joined by Aurora Police Chief Nick Metz and Aurora Fire Chief Mike Garcia, flanked by family members of the shooting victims, outside the courthouse Friday evening as he expressed his disappointment in the verdict.
“While I am disappointed with the outcome, I am not disappointed with the system,” he said.
As for the potential plea deal the defense offered shortly after he took office in early 2013, Brauchler said he was “open minded” to the idea. But, he said he told defense lawyers that if he was going to consider a deal, he would need to see Holmes’ medical records, the notebook he mailed to his therapist, and have a doctor of his choice examine Holmes.
The defense refused, he said.
Brauchler said even with the outcome, he doesn’t regret seeking the death penalty rather than allowing Holmes to plead out and avoid the trial — a trial, Brauchler noted, that shed light on every detail of the case.
With a case of this magnitude, Brauchler said it was vital that the community understood details about the crime, and that members of the community decided Holmes’ fate.
“This kind of crime cries out for the community’s involvement in the sentencing,” he said. “We made that possible.”
If a similar case happened again, Brauchler said he is “99.9-percent sure” he would handle it the same way.
Brauchler said during his closing argument Thursday that Holmes donned head-to-toe body armor to attack the theater because he wanted to survive the attack. When asked about that after the verdict, Brauchler said Holmes was successful on that front.
“Obviously he got what he wanted,” he said.
Metz, who took over the department in March, said that when he was considering moving to Aurora from Seattle Police, he was swayed in part by some of the theater shooting victims he met.
“I saw such incredible passion for not only wanting to see justice but for this city of Aurora,” he said.
Dave Hoover, the uncle of shooting victim AJ Boik, offered profuse praise for Aurora police after the sentencing verdict hearing.
“I would walk into the jaws of death for each and every one of you because that’s what you did that night … God bless you,” Hoover said, looking at officers present as he spoke.
Tom Teves, whose son, Alex, was one of the 12 killed, said he was initially opposed to prosecutors seeking the death penalty. But, he said, many of the other victims’ families wanted to see Holmes put to death. With that split, Teves said he fully backed Brauchler’s decision to seek the death penalty.
“They did what they were supposed to do,” he said of prosecutors.