2015 Year In Review: Theater shooting trial closes, but many find little closure in life sentence

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AURORA | Almost three years to the day after a gunman killed 12 and wounded dozens more inside a packed Aurora movie theater, the criminal case wound to a close in 2015 with the shooter being sentenced to life in prison plus 3,318 years behind bars — the maximum sentence allowed.

“It is the court’s intention that the defendant never step foot in free society again,” Judge Carlos Samour said as he handed down the sentence for James Holmes, the man who killed 12 and wounded 70 others in the July 2012 attack at the Aurora Century theater.

Aurora Mayor Steve Hogan said the lengthy trial was a big step for the city.

“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,” he said. “It’s part of that process of tying up feelings and fears and frustrations.”

Because Holmes’ defense team said they wouldn’t appeal the verdict, that likely was the last time Holmes walked out of a criminal courtroom, marking the end to the three-year case.

The sentence came after a four-month trial that included gut-wrenching testimony from survivors steal dealing with injuries and those who lost loved ones in the attack. Prosecutors had asked the jury to sentence Holmes to death, but one juror balked at a death sentence, guaranteeing Holmes a life term.

While the criminal case is over, several of the victims have filed civil lawsuits stemming from the shootings, and those cases could go to court in 2016.

At sentencing in August, Samour said if there was ever a person who deserved to spend their life behind bars, it was Holmes.

“The defendant does not deserve any sympathy,” Samour said.

That drew a quiet “whoo” from someone in the courtroom. Then, at 11:18 a.m. Aug. 27, Samour sternly said: “Sheriff, get the defendant out of my courtroom please.”

That drew cheers and applause from victims, and it sounded like one shouted “loser” at Holmes as he was led shackled from the courtroom.

Samour said the shootings happened because Holmes quit on life when he ran into difficulty at school and in his love life.

“Life knocked him down for the first time, and the defendant quit,” Samour said.

But rather than just give up, Holmes decided to unleash terror on others, Samour said.

“He decided that since he was quitting, he was going to take people with him,” Samour said during an hour-long speech before sentencing Holmes.

While prosecutors have been criticized for taking the case to trial instead of accepting a plea deal in 2013 that would have resulted in the same sentence, Samour said that wasn’t fair.

Mentioning specific details about each of the 12 murder victims gleaned during the trial, Samour said the community needed those facts to come out, and the trial was the only venue for that.

Also, Samour said, rather than the victims having to go through decades of appeals, the criminal case is over now.

The trail of tearful and gut-wrenching stories and pleas included Holmes’ mother, Arlene Holmes, who said she agonized over what her son has done, and how a trial seeking mercy may have made that pain worse.

District Attorney George Brauchler had asked Samour to give Holmes the harshest punishment possible, what he called the “maximum sentence for maximum evil.”

“What that guy did, he should not be spared one year, one month, one day of what the maximum sentence is,” he said.

Brauchler said he still believes death was the appropriate sentence and lamented the fact that Holmes could earn his way through good behavior to a medium-security facility, possibly get married while in prison and even be transferred to a prison in his native California. He said he wishes the court could impose harsher punishment — such as solitary confinement, or having to look at pictures of the victims — but said he knows the court can’t do that.

“It can’t sentence him to even be uncomfortable or miserable,” Brauchler said.

Holmes’ lawyers argued throughout the trial that he was schizophrenic and in the midst of a psychotic break when he plotted the shootings. But several doctors testified that while Holmes had mental problems, he was sane at the time of the attack. Jurors sided with those doctors and found Holmes guilty.

Holmes was initially sent to the Colorado State Penitentiary in Cañon City where he was assaulted by another inmate in the fall. He was later transferred to the San Carlos Correctional Facility in Pueblo, a prison that specializes in treating mentally ill patients.