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Colorado theater shooting: Not guilty plea entered for James Holmes

Published March 12, 2013 12:12 pm

Hearing • Judge enters a not guilty plea for suspect after his attorneys said they weren't ready to respond to charges that he murdered 12 people and tried to kill 70 others.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

CENTENNIAL, Colo. • A slack-limbed James Holmes faced the biggest decision of his murder case with silence Tuesday, refusing to enter a plea for the Aurora theater shootings during an extraordinary hearing that forced the judge to act on his behalf.

Judge William Sylvester entered a plea of not guilty for Holmes — over the objection of Holmes' attorneys — and set a month-long trial to begin in August. Sylvester also set an April 1 hearing, at which prosecutors will announce whether they will seek the death penalty in the case.

Holmes' lawyers have said for weeks they were considering entering a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity at his arraignment. But when the moment arrived Tuesday morning — a half hour behind schedule because some of Holmes' attorneys were stuck in traffic — those lawyers said they were not ready and asked for a month or two more to weigh their options. Attorney Daniel King said the defense team had not yet completed psychiatric evaluations on Holmes and said they also needed more time to study the legal consequences of an insanity plea.

"I don't think we can stand before you ethically and say we're ready to enter a plea," King told the judge. "The nature of the work we're doing is ongoing."

Shooting victims and their families in the audience sighed when King made his request. Prosecutors were exasperated.

"They've had eight months to get to this point," prosecutor Karen Pearson said.

Sylvester, the 18th Judicial District's chief judge, was also clearly peeved by the defense's opacity in asking for more time.

"So how am I to make an informed decision based on the limited information you're giving me, Mr. King?" Sylvester asked.

Citing a law that gives judges the authority to enter pleas for a defendant who "refuses to plead," Sylvester entered the plain not guilty plea. Holmes could later change his plea to insanity, but his attorneys must show "good cause" and get special permission from the judge for the switch. Sylvester seemed open to a later change.

"This court would certainly consider a subsequent not guilty by reason of insanity plea," Sylvester said.

What has given Holmes' lawyers pause is the looming court-ordered independent psychiatric evaluation that would begin immediately after he enters an insanity plea. Their recent court filings, which Sylvester denied, have challenged the constitutionality of Colorado's laws governing the evaluation. Holmes would be ordered to cooperate in the evaluation — he could be drugged to aid his participation — and would also have to turn over potentially incriminating information he gave to previous counselors.

King said Tuesday he remains concerned about how information from the evaluation could be used against Holmes during a possible death-penalty trial. And King also said he worried that the court's evaluation would cut short the defense's ongoing examinations of Holmes.

"We've made significant progress," King said. "We're just not ready to proceed."

Holmes is charged with 166 counts of murder, attempted murder and other offenses for the July 20 shootings at the Century Aurora 16 movie theater. The attack killed 12 and wounded 58 others by gunfire. Victims and their family members sat on one side of the courtroom Tuesday, watching the proceedings intently even as Holmes stared blankly ahead.

Across the aisle from the victims, next to a bank of defense investigators, sat Holmes' parents. They spoke little to one another during the hearing, mostly keeping their hands folded in their laps and their eyes downcast. They looked up at their bearded and bushy-haired son as he entered the courtroom.

After the hearing, shooting survivor Marcus Weaver said he was grateful Sylvester moved the case forward.

"Seeing (Holmes) in the courtroom today, he is human just like we all are. He does deserve a fair trial," said Weaver, who was shot in the arm. "There isn't a second that goes by that we don't feel the sting of his actions. Justice will be served in the end."

Weaver said he believes most victims want to see the death penalty sought against Holmes. But Weaver said he thinks Holmes should be given life in prison if he pleads guilty. He said Holmes seemed lucid during the hearing, not insane.

"To be honest," Weaver said, "I saw a human being today. And you can plead guilty and own up to it. Or you can plead not guilty and face serious consequences."

Arapahoe County District Attorney George Brauchler told Sylvester that he would announce during the April 1 hearing whether he will pursue the death penalty.

Holmes' attorneys, meanwhile, said they have secured a signed subpoena for a New York-based Fox News reporter to appear at the April hearing to testify about her sources. The reporter, Jana Winter, wrote a story citing unnamed law enforcement sources who said a notebook Holmes mailed to his University of Colorado psychiatrist contained details of a shooting plot. Holmes' attorneys say the disclosure violated a gag order in the case.

Sylvester also set hearings for the week of May 13, to argue motions in the case, and for July 25, to determine readiness for trial. The trial is scheduled to begin Aug. 5 and last for at least four weeks. Prosecutors estimated it could actually take twice as long.

Unexpected delays have become the norm for the case. When Holmes entered Tuesday's hearing, he appeared to have but three options before him.

He could have pleaded not guilty and faced a jury trial to determine if he did it. He could have pleaded guilty, skipping the trial and setting up a sentencing hearing to decide his punishment. Or he could have pleaded insanity, spurring the court-ordered evaluation and a trial to determine whether he is sane.

Instead, with inscrutable silence, Holmes chose none.

"He's a hollow person, very evil," said Jessica Watts, the cousin of slain theater victim Jonathan Blunk. "He's absolutely not insane. ... Just, he doesn't seem like he does a whole lot to help himself. He doesn't seem real interested in what's going on in his own future."