A suspect appears in court today, nearly six months after a bloody rampage in a Colorado movie theater left 12 people dead, for a hearing that might be the closest thing to a trial the victims and their families will get to see.
James Holmes, a former neuroscience graduate student, is charged with killing 12 people and injuring 70 by opening fire in a darkened theater showing the new Batman film “The Dark Knight Rises” in the Denver suburb of Aurora last July.
Prosecutors will outline their case against Holmes, the first official public disclosure of their evidence. The judge will then determine whether to send the case to trial.
Legal analysts say that the evidence appears to be so strong that Holmes may well accept a plea agreement before trial. In such cases, the preliminary hearing can set the stage for a deal by letting each side assess the other’s strengths and weaknesses, said Laurie Levenson, a former federal prosecutor and now a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.
Preliminary hearings “are often the first step to resolving the case, a mini-trial so both sides can see the writing on the wall,” Levenson said.
Court officials expect many survivors and family members of the dead to attend the preliminary hearing, along with scores of spectators and reporters. At least two overflow rooms are being prepared where the hearing can be observed by video and audio feeds.
District Judge William B. Sylvester has imposed a gag order on attorneys and investigators, and many court documents have been filed under seal, so little is known about Holmes’ path from promising graduate student to suspect in a mass murder.
In previous hearings — many witnessed by victims and survivors — Holmes’ appearance and behavior ranged from bizarre to unremarkable. On his first day in court, his hair was a shocking orange-red, his face was covered with stubble and he seemed to be in a daze.
By last week, his hair was a natural-looking brown and he wore a full beard. He sat quietly and seemed to be aware of the proceedings.
Holmes could get the death penalty or life in prison without parole if he goes to trial and is convicted of murder. He could avoid the death penalty if his lawyers argue he is mentally ill or innocent by reason of insanity.
Holmes’ mental health is expected to be a major factor whether his case ends in a plea agreement or goes to trial.
His lawyers have told the judge that Holmes was mentally ill, and court records indicate they may call witnesses in the preliminary hearing to testify about his mental health. The defense team has not said whether Holmes would enter an insanity plea.
The decision on whether to seek the death penalty will be up to the new district attorney for Arapahoe County, George Brauchler, who was elected in November and takes office Tuesday, after the preliminary hearing begins. Brauchler has not indicated what he will do.
A spokeswoman for outgoing District Attorney Carol Chambers, who oversaw the filing of charges against Holmes, declined to comment.
If prosecutors do not seek the death penalty, and if Holmes is convicted of or pleads guilty to first-degree murder charges, he would face a mandatory sentence of life without parole.