Prosecution to seek death penalty against theater shooting suspect James Holmes

4:59 PM, Apr 1, 2013   |    comments
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CENTENNIAL - After a week of legal twists and turns, James Holmes could face execution if convicted in the Aurora theater attack that killed 12 people. The prosecution announced on Monday they plan to seek the death penalty.

"In this case, for James Egan Holmes, justice is death," District Attorney George Brauchler said, adding that his office had spoken with victims and their families.

Holmes showed no visible reaction to the announcement, but his parents clasped hands and then embraced.

When the announcement was made by the district attorney's office that they wanted to seek the death penalty, one of the victims was nodding along with the announcement. The DA told the court that his office reached out to more than 800 family members identified in this case.

"My original thought was 'thank goodness, I am so glad this is happening,'" Bryan Beard, a friend of the slain Alex Sullivan, said on Monday after the DA's announcement. "I've said this once and this is the last time I'll say it, the only way that death will receive justice when somebody murders somebody else, is death. I guess you fight fire with fire, it sounds awful, but I'm tired of being so politically correct. You know, if somebody takes an eye, you can't just slap them on the wrist. You can't."

Marcus Weaver, who was shot in the arm during the mass shooting, says the decision puts a lot of pressure on the victims.

"It's definitely going to be a marathon," Weaver said. "It's definitely not a sprint at this point, but it all hinges on Mr. Holmes. Mr. Holmes - if you're listening to our conversation - plead guilty. Accept your fate. It takes a man to step up to the plate. I feel that Mr. Holmes has an opportunity to step up to the plate and face his punishment. Once again, Mr. Holmes, if you're listening to a victim, if you could just plead guilty so we could all move forward, I know you want to. You made a decision to go into a theater, and you shot at 12 victims, including one of my dear friends and shot me in the arm and changed all of our lives. Your penalty has been decided. Just accept it and be a man. Man up. Save us from all the difficulty, the trouble, the taxpayer dollars -  all those things. Your fate has been decided by the people you hurt."

Behind-the-scenes maneuvering erupted into a public quarrel between prosecutors and the defense over Holmes' public offer to plead guilty. The two sides never came to an agreement that would have spared Holmes's life in exchange for spending the rest of his life in prison.

When Holmes walked into the court Monday morning, he looked towards the crowd and made eye contact with his parents. Holmes' father nodded towards his son.

After the announcement of the DA's decision to pursue the death penalty against Holmes, 18th Judicial District Judge William Sylvester said he would not be able to preside over the case due to the time needed for a death-penalty case.

The case is being reassigned to Judge Carlos A. Samour Jr. The trial date was set for Feb. 4, 2014. The court has reserved four months for the proceedings.

BACKGROUND

As the tangled and bloody case returns to court, survivors and families of the victims are uncertain about what happens next.

If the case goes to trial, "all of us victims would be dragged along potentially for years," said Pierce O'Farrill, who was shot three times.

"It could be 10 or 15 years before he's executed. I would be in my 40s and I'm planning to have a family, and the thought of having to look back and reliving everything at that point in my life, it would be difficult," he said.

Holmes is accused of meticulously planning and brutally executing an attack at a Colorado movie theater during the midnight showing of the latest Batman movie, killing 12 people and injuring 70.

Defense lawyers revealed in a court filing last week that Holmes would plead guilty if prosecutors allowed him to live out his days in prison with no chance of parole instead of having him put to death.

That prompted an angry response from prosecutors, who called it an attempt to gin up public support for a plea deal.

Prosecutors also said the defense has repeatedly refused to give them the information they need to evaluate the plea agreement.

Prosecutors want to know how persuasive an insanity case Holmes could make before they agree to give up the death penalty, said Mimi Wesson, a professor at the University of Colorado Law School.

"To the prosecution, it's clear what they're giving up, but less clear what the defendant is giving up, because it's hard to know how strong his claim of insanity might be," she said.

If prosecutors do accept a deal, they will want to ensure that it's air-tight, said Karen Steinhauser, a former prosecutor who is now an adjunct professor at the University of Denver law school.

Holmes would give up his right to appeal by pleading guilty, she said. And although he could ask to change the plea if new evidence surfaces or if he claimed his lawyers were ineffective, "it's very, very hard to withdraw it," she said.

District Judge William Sylvester would want assurances from defense lawyers that Holmes is mentally competent to plead guilty and accept a life sentence with no parole, Steinhauser said.

The judge could order a mental competency evaluation before accepting a guilty plea, but Steinhauser said that's unlikely unless Holmes showed some sign of incompetence.

She said Sylvester would probably accept the word of Holmes' lawyers.

If Holmes is sentenced to prison, the state Department of Corrections would determine what kind of mental health care he gets, said Alison Morgan, a department spokeswoman.

A third of the state's inmates have moderate to severe mental illness, and the prison system has an extensive mental health division with a 250-bed facility for the acutely mental ill, she said.

Inmates can be sent to the state mental hospital in Pueblo - where people found not guilty by reason of insanity are committed - but the stay is temporary, and they are returned to the prison system after treatment, she said.

(KUSA-TV © 2013 Multimedia Holdings Corporation with The Associated Press)

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