Trial tries to look inside Colorado shooter's mind
Centennial, Colo. — Two versions of the unstable mind of James Holmes were presented to a jury Monday as lawyers revealed many more details about his conversion from a promising grad student to a gunman capable of opening fire on hundreds of unsuspecting moviegoers at a "Batman" premiere.
The lead prosecutor displayed an image of the theater door on a TV screen as he told of a sinister but sane killer who methodically carried out the 2012 mass murder to make himself feel good and be remembered.
"Through this door is horror. Through this door are bullets, blood, brains and bodies. Through this door, one guy who thought as if he had lost his career, lost his love life, lost his purpose, came to execute a plan," said District Attorney George Brauchler, standing before a scale model of the theater.
"He tried to murder a theater full of people to make himself feel better and because he thought it would increase his self-worth."
Brauchler said two previously secret court-ordered psychiatric exams found Holmes to be sane.
Public Defender Daniel King countered that Holmes suffers from schizophrenia, a diagnosis confirmed by 20 doctors.
Jurors must decide whether Holmes was able to know right from wrong when he slipped into the theater, unleashed tear gas and killed 12 people and wounded 70. He's charged with first-degree murder, attempted murder, an explosives offense and committing an act of violence for the mayhem he caused on July 20, 2012.
Holmes has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. His defense hopes jurors will agree and have him indefinitely committed to a mental institution. Under Colorado law, prosecutors must prove Holmes was sane in order to have him executed or spend the rest of his life in prison.
"Mental illness can sure sound like an excuse, but in this case, it's not," King said. "There will be no doubt in your minds that by the end of this trial, Mr. Holmes is severely mentally ill."
Holmes sat quietly, harnessed to the floor by a cable that ran through his pants leg as the lawyers described his emotional rise and fall.
Defense attorneys said mental illness ran through both sides of Holmes' family, including an aunt with schizophrenic affective disorder. Holmes attempted suicide at age 11, had "intrusive thoughts" in high school, and his mental illness "revved up" in his 20s, his attorney Katherine Spengler said. By grad school, his "psychosis bloomed," King said.
By the months before the shootings, Holmes was the throes of psychosis, suffering delusions that took hold of his mind and commanded him to kill. He somehow thought slaughtering people would set things right, and was so sick afterward that he licked the wall of his jail cell, his defense said.
King and Spengler referred to the seemingly delusional rants in a journal Holmes mailed to his therapist just before the shootings as proof that he had lost his mind.
Brauchler pointed instead to emails Holmes sent his parents, where he seemed to communicate rationally and downplay his emotional decline.
All the while, Holmes was buying an arsenal of weapons, ammunition, tear gas, explosive chemicals, body armor and remote control detonators, and going to a remote shooting range to practice what he described to an ex-girlfriend as his "evil plan," the prosecutor said.
Just a few hours into a trial expected to last four months, it became clear that prosecutors will try to prove Holmes had no excuse, and miss no opportunity to remind jurors of the lives he ended or ruined.
Holmes' victims included two active-duty servicemen, a single mom, a man celebrating his 27th birthday, and an aspiring broadcaster who had survived a mall shooting in Toronto, and a 6-year-old girl whose pregnant mother lost her baby and was paralyzed.
"Boom!" Brauchler said as he showed pictures of the victims and the weapons Holmes used to kill them on a TV screen. "Boom!" he repeated, describing in detail how bullets pierced organs and destroyed limbs.
"Four-hundred people came into a boxlike theater to be entertained, and one person came to slaughter them," the prosecutor said. Many more people would have died, but a magazine on his AR-15 assault rifle jammed, leaving 218 bullets unfired, Brauchler said.
Defense attorneys said there's no need to spend months describing such horrors; they acknowledge Holmes was the killer. His state of mind is what's in dispute.
To prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he was "NOT insane," Judge Carlos A. Samour Jr., told the jury, the state must show he had "a culpable state of mind." If Holmes acted with deliberation and intent — willfully taking actions that he knew would kill people -- then even if he had mental problems, he should be found guilty of murder, the judge said.
Insanity defenses are successful in only 25 percent of felony trials nationally, even less so in homicides. Most mass shooters are killed by police, kill themselves or plead guilty. A review of 160 mass shootings found killers went to trial 74 times, and just three were found insane, according to Grant Duwe, a Minnesota corrections official who wrote the book "Mass Murder in the United States: A History."
The defense hopes to add Holmes to that very short list.
"When he stepped into that theater, his thoughts and actions were no longer driven by choice, in his vulnerable and sick psychotic state. His mind was so diseased that he did not make that choice based on ability to tell right from wrong," Spengler declared.
The prosecutor asked jurors instead to focus on what Holmes did to Veronica Moser-Sullivan, who at 6 years old was the youngest to die.
"That guy shot her four times. Four times! I'm not going to show you her picture now because you should only have to see it once," Brauchler said. "When all is said and done, I am going to ask you to reject that man's claim that he didn't know right from wrong. I'm going to ask you to hold him accountable."
A prosecutor declared Monday that two mental health evaluations found Colorado theater gunman James Holmes to be sane. It was the first public word on what different psychiatrists determined after examining the former neuroscience student accused of killing 12 people and wounding 70 at a midnight "Batman" premiere.
The statement by District Attorney George Brauchler marked the start of a long-awaited, lengthy and emotionally wrenching trial to determine if he'll be executed, spend his life in prison, or be committed to an institution as criminally insane.
Holmes pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity to 166 counts, including first-degree murder, attempted murder and an explosives offense, after the mayhem he caused in suburban Denver on July 20, 2012. It remains one of America's deadliest shootings, and that Holmes was the lone gunman has never been in doubt. He was arrested at the scene, along with an arsenal of weapons on his body and in his car.
His fate depends on whether a jury agrees that he was unable to know right from wrong because of a mental illness or defect three years ago, when he slipped into the midnight Batman premiere, unleashed tear gas and marched up and down the aisles, firing at people who tried to flee.
"Through this door is horror. Through this door are bullets, blood, brains and bodies. Through this door, one guy who thought as if he had lost his career, lost his love life, lost his purpose, came to execute a plan," said Brauchler, standing before what appeared to be a scale model of the theater, still covered in a black cloth.
"Four-hundred people came into a boxlike theater to be entertained, and one person came to slaughter them," the prosecutor said.
Each side was allowed two hours for opening statements, with public defenders Daniel King and Katherine Spengler following his presentation.
Defense lawyers say Holmes was in the grips of a psychotic episode and could not tell right from wrong when he went on the rampage. His parents, Robert and Arlene Holmes, in pleading for his life, have called their son a "human being gripped by a severe mental illness."
Under Colorado law, the burden falls on the state to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he was "NOT insane," Judge Carlos A. Samour Jr., told the jury. And that, in turn, depends in part on "a culpable state of mind:" If Holmes acted with deliberation and intent — willfully taking actions that he knew would kill people -- then even if he had mental problems, he should be found guilty of murder, the judge said.
Prosecutors allege that Holmes planned the violence for months, buying a rifle, a shotgun, two pistols, tear gas canisters, body armor, thousands of rounds of ammunition and a chemical stockpile that turned his 800-square-foot apartment into a booby trap that might have caused a conflagration.
"He tried to murder a theater full of people to make himself feel better and because he thought it would increase his self-worth," Brauchler said. "I would like to focus on the victims," he said, but instead he must prove that Holmes was not insane.
The state has already spent millions seeking that verdict, managing an outsized number of victims, witnesses and more than 85,000 pages of evidence. Nearly three years passed hundreds of motions were filed in legal debates over capital punishment and insanity pleas.
Insanity defenses are successful in only 25 percent of felony trials nationally, even less so in homicides.
"Lay people tend to think of people with mental illness as extremely dangerous, and that also influences jurors, especially if someone has killed someone," said Christopher Slobogin, who teaches law and psychiatry at Vanderbilt Law School. "Usually there's evidence of intent and planning that seems to be counterintuitive to the lay view of mental illness."
Winning a trial on mental-health grounds is rare, but then again, so are jury trials for mass shooters. Most are killed by police, kill themselves or plead guilty.
A review of 160 mass shootings found killers went to trial 74 times, and just three were found insane, according to Grant Duwe, a Minnesota corrections official who wrote the book "Mass Murder in the United States: A History."
Just one has won a mental-health case in the last two decades, Duwe said: Michael Hayes, who shot nine people, killing four, in North Carolina in 1988. Based on that, Holmes "faces some pretty long odds," he said.
Brauchler began laying out how the once-promising doctoral candidate in neuroscience plotted and planned for months, amassing guns, ammunition, tear gas grenades and enough chemicals to turn his dingy apartment into a potentially lethal booby trap that could have caused even more carnage.
Holmes was arrested almost immediately, while stripping off his body armor in the parking lot outside the Century 16 movie theater where he replaced Hollywood violence with real human carnage. His victims included two active-duty servicemen, a single mom, a man celebrating his 27th birthday, and an aspiring broadcaster who had survived a mall shooting in Toronto. Several died shielding friends or loved ones.
At 6 years old, the youngest to die was Veronica Moser-Sullivan. Her mother, Ashley Moser, was left paralyzed and lost her unborn child.
Holmes' trial could take at least four months or more and is sure to be emotionally wrenching. The 12 jurors and 12 alternates — chosen from a pool of 9,000 because it was so difficult to find people who weren't personally affected — won't know if they'll join the deliberations until after the trial.
Some survivors want Holmes executed, even if that means reliving horrific details.
"It still doesn't bring him back, but we want justice," said W. David Hoover, who wants to avenge the death of his 18-year-old nephew, A.J. Boik. "Real justice is going to happen when this animal leaves this Earth."
Fire Chief Larry Trujillo, whose daughter, Taylor, survived the shooting when a friend threw her to the floor, said while entering the courthouse that his faith enables him to forgive, but that this may be easier for him to say: His daughter survived.