CENTENNIAL | Almost three years after James Holmes walked into an Aurora movie theater and opened fire, killing 12, injuring 70 and traumatizing a city of 350,000 people, jurors needed only 13 hours to render a decision: Guilty on all charges, including 24 first-degree murder charges.
Nods of approval, hugs and tears rippled through the seven rows of victims and family members seated in Arapahoe County District courtroom 201 Thursday afternoon as Judge Carlos Samour Jr. spent over an hour reading off the 165 counts of murder and attempted murder facing the shooter.
Sandy Phillips, whose daughter, Jessica Ghawi, was shot and killed in the massacre, wept and peered toward the ceiling the moment Samour read the first count shortly after 4:15 p.m.
“We’re very happy — extremely happy — with the result today (of) convicted on all charges,” Phillips told reporters outside the courthouse following the announcement of the verdict. “We’re very happy that this animal, this monster will never see the light of day. It feels good to have this weight off of our backs.”
Wrapped in an emerald scarf, Phillips clasped the hand of Caren Teves, who was seated beside her, when the judge read the name of Teves’ slain son, Alex. From his chair along the aisle of the courtroom’s fourth row of seating, Caren’s husband, Tom, sat fixated on the face of the man now convicted of killing his 24-year-old son.
And just as he’s done every day in a trial that has spanned almost three months, Holmes stared straight ahead, emotionlessly, while the judge read one guilty verdict after another. Seated no more than 15 feet behind him, Holmes’ parents, Arlene and Robert, held hands and listened in silence to Samour’s repetitive declarations of the jury’s decision: Guilty with a wholesale rejection of the insanity defense presented.
Mayor Steve Hogan said that there was no real sense of relief or closure from today’s verdicts, because it’s been “three long years, and it’s not over yet.”
He said the most important thing for Aurora to do is to reach out to each other, and especially the victims and families of victims, and let them know that “we’re still here for you, and we will always be here for you.”
In one of the biggest and most-complicated cases the state has seen, the jury of three men and nine women handed Samour manila folders teeming with verdict forms, with Juror 737 — a survivor of the Columbine High School shooting — having served as foreman for the group of 12.
Jurors appeared stoic while Samour read through the charges. One juror appeared to dab at her eyes during the long reading.
Holmes faced 24 charges of first-degree murder — 12 counts of murder with deliberation and 12 counts of murder with extreme indifference, 116 counts of attempted murder, possession of explosive devices, and inciting violence.
A guilty verdict means the trial now moves into the death penalty sentencing phase, wherein a new round of testimony will begin to decide whether Holmes will be sentenced to death for his crimes. Sentencing proceedings are expected to begin Wednesday morning. It’s expected that this phase of the trial would take a few weeks and be complete in August.
THE PATH TO A VERDICT
The first day of testimony in the trial saw prosecutors wasting no time showing the then-24-person jury gut-wrenching evidence against Holmes. Dozens of witnesses would follow the next day — victims who walked to the stand using canes due to the lingering effects of their injuries, police officers who carried the wounded from the theater and those who saw death up close in the early morning hours of July 20, 2012.
The prosecution played multiple 911 tapes early on in their case of people inside Theater 9 begging for help. Several jurors wept, as did many family members who buried their heads in their hands and sobbed as they listened to the horror. Attorneys held their heads in their hands during some of the tapes.
As he did through most of the trial to date, Holmes sat quietly at the defense table, occasionally swiveling slowly in his chair and turning to look at evidence shown on a flat-screen TV mounted on the wall. He had no discernible expression throughout weeks of testimony.
INSANITY DEFENSE ATTACKED EARLY, OFTEN
Public defender Dan King and his team of lawyers representing Holmes focused intensely on psychiatrists who reasoned Holmes had suffered from mental illness for years leading up to the shooting — some doctors, such as University of Pennsylvania psychiatrist Raquel Gur, stated they believed Holmes was in the grips of schizophrenia for weeks leading up to the shooting.
Gur in particular said Holmes’ disease was so severe he didn’t know right from wrong when he opened fire on the theater.
But for most of the defense’s top witnesses, District Attorney George Brauchler spent lengthy cross examinations picking away at their credentials as court-certified expert witnesses, their deviation from their usual practices in evaluating Holmes, and that many of them routinely testified only on the behalf of defense teams in other cases.
“Even without willful dishonesty, an expert’s opinion can be influenced by the side that called for their testimony,” Brauchler said during cross examination of Gur.
AFTER 49 DAYS, DECISION TIME
When both sides had concluded their cases, 49 days had passed of gut-wrenching testimony and fiery back-and-forth about doctors’ diagnoses of Holmes. The question the jury of nine women and three men started deliberating about on July 15: Was James Holmes sane when he opened fire on that packed movie theater three years ago, killing 12 and wounding 70?
Prosecutors say Holmes was, and they point to his methodical planning and the findings of two doctors — both were appointed by the state mental hospital and subsequently ruled Holmes sane — as proof that he knew right from wrong.
“That guy was sane beyond a reasonable doubt and he needs to be held accountable for what he did,” District Attorney George Brauchler said during his closing argument.
But public defender Dan King said trying to attach logic to Holmes’ psychotic actions would never lead to useful answers because Holmes’ thinking at the time was so twisted.
“There isn’t a lot of logic to what Mr. Holmes did because he is mentally ill,” King said.
“You cannot divorce the mental illness from this case or Mr. Holmes, because the mental illness caused this to happen,” King said. “Only the mental illness caused this to happen — and nothing else.”
But Brauchler said Holmes opened fire on the theater not because he was insane, but because he wanted to be remembered. He noted Holmes told Reid he knew he would be remembered after the shooting.
Brauchler also showed the jury a bulletin board in Holmes’ jail cell adorned with several pictures of women who have reached out to him and mailed him photos since the shooting.
“This is success,” Brauchler said, pointing to the board that also included the No. 1 and infinity sign logo Holmes has written several times. “This is his payoff for murdering people.”
A STEP ON THE ROAD TO RECOVERY
At the onset of the trial in April, Aurora Mayor Steve Hogan said this process was a huge milestone on the road to recovery for the community.
“The trial is a part of the healing process, not just for the families who lost a loved one in the theater, but for the victims that survived and for the community as a whole,” said Aurora Mayor Steve Hogan. “It’s part of that process of tying up feelings and fears and frustrations.”
U.S. Representative Mike Coffman echoed the city’s collective sigh of relief.
“I am relieved to see us progress down the path of justice,” Coffman said in a statement released Thursday evening. “The shooting three years ago shook the core of my hometown of Aurora, but the three years since have proven how strong and resilient our community is in the face of evil. My thoughts and prayers are with the families affected by this senseless tragedy.”
Originally expected to last four to five months, the jury’s quick work on rendering a verdict showed they did not linger long in forming an opinion on the key factor: whether Holmes was sane at the time of the attack.
Pastor Reid Hettich of Mosaic Church of Aurora represented the city’s religious leaders on the 7/20 Committee formed after the shooting. He said the trial would be tough for some and helpful for others — and that a verdict brings the community closer to the bigger milestone of a decision on Holmes’ fate.
“The trial being over will give some sense of closure for some people,” he said. “It’s time for us to sort of get this phase over with.”
— Staff writers Chris Harrop, Brandon Johansson and the Associated Press contributed to this report.
3 YEARS AFTER: A look at Aurora and Colorado after the July 20, 2012 Aurora theater shooting