CENTENNIAL | After defense attorneys for accused Aurora theater shooter James Holmes said they still are unready to enter a plea in the case, the judge in the case entered a plea of “not guilty” in his behalf, creating a new delay in process.
When the judge explained that the decision means the earliest a trial could start is August, victims and their families in the courtroom groaned.
The judge says Holmes can change his plea to not guilty by reason of insanity later, if he chooses.
If convicted, Holmes could be executed or spend the rest of his life in prison.
Holmes appeared in court with a bushy beard and hair, but said nothing.
Prosecutors have not yet announced whether they will seek the death penalty in the matter. Holmes is charged with multiple counts of murder and attempted murder. Twelve people were killed and more were wounded in the July 20 attack on moviegoers in Aurora.
Defense attorneys have made several moves during the past several weeks to indicate they will seek an insanity defense, but they have not formalized that strategy. If they did, a sanity hearing and evaluation would be ordered, which could take months.
In the nearly eight months since James Holmes first shuffled into court with vacant eyes and reddish-orange hair, neither he nor his lawyers have said much about how he would plead to charges from the deadly Colorado movie theater shooting.
There have been plenty of hints, however. As his hair turned more natural-looking and his demeanor more even at court hearings, Holmes’ lawyers repeatedly raised questions about his mental health, including a recent revelation that he was held in a psychiatric ward for several days last fall, often in restraints, because he was considered a danger to himself.
If, as many expect, they enter a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity on his behalf in the coming weeks, it will clarify the court battle ahead: Was Holmes, 25, legally insane — unable to tell right from wrong — at the time of the shootings?
Pleading insanity could be the only way he can avoid life in prison or execution, given the evidence that has emerged so far, some legal experts said.
Prosecutors laid out a case that Holmes methodically planned the shooting for months, amassing an arsenal and elaborately booby-trapping his apartment to kill anyone who tried to enter. On the night of the attack, they say, he donned a police-style helmet, gas mask and body armor, tossed a gas canister into the seats and then opened fire.
The attack killed 12 people and injured dozens more.
“This is not a whodunit,” criminal defense attorney Dan Recht said in January. He is not involved in the case.
Holmes is charged with 166 counts, mostly murder and attempted murder, in the July 20 assault on moviegoers at a midnight showing of “The Dark Knight Rises” in Aurora.
If a jury agrees he was insane, he would be committed indefinitely to a state mental hospital. There would be a remote and unlikely chance he could be freed one day if doctors find his sanity has been restored.
The plea carries risk, however. Prosecutors would gain access to Holmes’ mental health records, which could help their case if the evidence of insanity is weak. If Holmes does plead insanity, the proceedings would be prolonged further while he is evaluated by state mental health officials.
“You heard the evidence they have. There is no doubt that he knew what he was doing was wrong, there’s no doubt it was premeditated,” said Tom Teves of Phoenix, whose 24-year-old son, Alex, died in the theater while shielding his girlfriend. “There’s no doubt he did it. Zero. So why are we playing a lot of games?”
If Holmes stays with the not guilty plea entered by the judge Tuesday — not by reason of insanity — it would significantly change the court fight. Prosecutors would not have those medical records, but Holmes could be convicted outright, with a possible life term or death.
No matter how Holmes finally pleads, he could still be convicted and sentenced to execution or life in prison without parole. Prosecutors have 60 days after the plea to say whether they will seek the death penalty.
Since his arrest outside the theater, his attorneys have aggressively challenged prosecutors, investigators and even the constitutionality of Colorado law nearly every step of the way.
Just this month, they asked the presiding judge, William Sylvester, to rule parts of the state insanity law unconstitutional, arguing it raised too many questions for them to give Holmes effective advice. Sylvester refused.
“This is going to take some time. You know, I remind myself that they got the guy, he’s not going anywhere,” said Tom Sullivan, whose 27-year-old son, Alex, died on his birthday at the movie theater. “I don’t know what kind of shape he’s in right now, but you assume it’s not a pleasant experience what’s going on right now.”