Holmes to Face Death Penalty in Shooting
2013 04 01
Prosecutors will seek the death penalty for James Holmes, who has been accused of committing 12 first degree murders and scores of other crimes in a mass shooting at a movie theater near Denver in July.
"For James Eagan Holmes, justice is death," District Attorney George Brauchler said at a court hearing Monday.
The decision immediately prompted a delay in the trial, which had been set for August but is now scheduled to start next year. Prosecutors acknowledged in court Monday that a death-penalty case involves extra time for such matters as interviewing potential jurors about their position on capital punishment.
Mr. Holmes’s defense team said it would need months to prepare. "They are trying to execute our client," Tamara Brady, one of Mr. Holmes’s public defenders, said in court. "We will do what we need to do to defend his life."
Judge William Sylvester, who had been hearing the case since the shootings in Aurora, Colo., has entered a not-guilty plea for Mr. Holmes, but his lawyers have said they are considering an insanity defense.
Judge Sylvester said Monday that his duties as a chief district judge made it impossible for him to continue presiding now that "a final resolution of this case is now likely years away."
The same "very present" and attentive look we’ve gotten used to see on Holmes.He appointed a new judge, Carlos Samour, who took over immediately. He set a Feb. 3 trial date but acknowledged the defense may ask for that date to be pushed back and said the trial could take at least four months.
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Prosecutors in a capital case must first persuade jurors of Mr. Holmes’s guilt, then, in a separate proceeding, convince the same jurors that aggravating circumstances such as multiple victims justify a death sentence. The defense can raise mitigating factors, such as his mental state, to try to persuade jurors to impose a sentence of life in prison instead.
In January, a retired prosecutor with experience in capital cases, Dan Zook, was appointed to lead the state’s case.
The decision to seek the death penalty came less than a week after a Colorado House committee narrowly voted to shelve a bill that would have abolished capital punishment in the state. The vote followed statements made by Gov. John Hickenlooper that indicated unease with the bill.
Within the last year, legislatures in two states—Connecticut and Maryland—have voted to abolish their death penalties.
Execution in Colorado is by lethal injection and hasn’t been carried out since 1997 on Gary Davis, who had been convicted of raping and murdering a woman in 1986. That execution was the first in Colorado in 30 years.
Lengthy delays between conviction and execution are often the result of protracted post-trial appeals and motions, said legal experts.
Because of the delays, opponents of capital punishment in Colorado doubted that the decision to seek the death penalty against Mr. Holmes would ultimately give victims the solace they are seeking.
"It’s emotionally more difficult for the victims than it would be had the state sought life," said Dan Schoen, a death-penalty opponent and the executive director of the Colorado Criminal Defense Bar. "It’s an open wound that will fester for 20 years."
Death-penalty supporters said the Holmes case was well-suited for the death penalty. "If not now, when" asked Craig Silverman, a former Denver chief deputy district attorney now in private practice. "A decision by prosecutors not to seek the death penalty in this case would have been the functional equivalent of abolishing it entirely."
Prosecutors have said that Mr. Holmes, who had dropped out of a graduate program in neuroscience shortly before the shooting, engaged in elaborate preparations, including buying weaponry and body armor and booby-trapping his apartment.
Mr. Holmes was in court Monday, as were his parents. They showed little reaction to the district attorney’s announcement, but some victims of the shooting and their families began crying.
Marcus Weaver, who was shot and injured in the theater, said he believed life in prison was the proper sentence but that the consensus among the victims was in favor of the death penalty. Mr. Weaver called on Mr. Holmes to plead guilty even if that would mean his execution.
"Mr. Holmes, if you’re listening to a victim, if you’d just plead guilty, we could all move forward," Mr. Weaver told reporters outside the court. "Your penalty has been decided. Just accept it, and be a man."
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