Guilty Verdict for James Holmes in Aurora Attack


JULY 16, 2015

CENTENNIAL, Colo. — Inside Courtroom 201, the families of the dead and wounded watched in taut silence on Thursday afternoon as the judge shuffled through a stack of verdict forms containing the fate of James E. Holmes, the gunman who slipped into a Colorado movie theater in 2012 and opened fire on their sons and daughters, friends and loved ones.

As the judge began reading the verdicts — guilty, guilty, guilty — repeated 165 times over an entire hour, for each count of murder and attempted murder, the families sobbed quietly, clutched one another’s shoulders and nodded along to a recitation of guilt that many had been waiting nearly three years to hear.

Sandy Phillips wrapped herself tightly in the green scarf that her slain daughter, Jessica Ghawi, had loved. A father whose son was killed patted the arm of Joshua Nowlan, who was wounded and now walks with a cane.As each name of the 12 people killed and 70 wounded was read, and read again — prosecutors filed two charges per victim — the families looked to the corner of the public gallery and gave one another a quiet nod or an arm squeeze.

After an emotional 10-week trial, one of the longest and most complex in this state’s history, it took a jury of nine women and three men about 12 hours of deliberation over two days to convict Mr. Holmes on all counts. He now faces a lengthy sentencing process in which prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.

The jury’s verdict roundly rejected arguments from his defense lawyers that he had had a psychotic break and was legally insane when he carried out the massacre inside the Century 16 theater in suburban Aurora, Colo., on July 20, 2012. His lawyers argued he was not in control of his thoughts or actions, but prosecutors said Mr. Holmes, despite being mentally ill, had plotted the shootings with calculation and knew what he wanted to accomplish when he started firing into the crowd.

As Judge Carlos Samour Jr. read the 165 counts against Mr. Holmes, the defendant stood silently between his lawyers, staring straight ahead, with his hands tucked into the pockets of a pair of khaki-colored pants. He did not glance at his parents sitting two rows behind. When the hourlong recitation of the verdicts was done, he sat down and lightly swiveled in his chair.

Coming within days of the Aurora shooting’s third anniversary, the guilty verdict ends one phase of a grueling legal saga, but another one is set to begin.

As the district attorney in suburban Arapahoe County argues for the death penalty, the jury will begin weighing the toll and nature of Mr. Holmes’s actions to decide whether to send him to prison for life or to Colorado’s death row.

The sentencing phase is expected to take weeks. It could feature more wrenching statements from survivors and families of the victims, as well as testimony from defense witnesses discussing the role that mental illness played in propelling Mr. Holmes toward the movie theater that night.

“Look for the defense to emphasize the fact that James Holmes truly suffers from a serious mental illness, that he is in dire need of ongoing treatment and that while incarcerated he does not pose any real threat or danger to society,” said Steven Pitt, a forensic psychiatrist in Arizona who has followed the case closely. “Look for the prosecution to try and minimize the extent of Holmes’s mental illness and instead depict him as someone who is depraved and rotten to the core.”

The district attorney, George Brauchler, has said that for Mr. Holmes, “justice is death.”

Prosecutors argued that Mr. Holmes plotted the shootings for several weeks, deliberately and meticulously, because he had lost his first and only girlfriend, had dropped out of his graduate program and had generally lost his purpose in life.

To that end, prosecutors brought in professors and classmates who described Mr. Holmes’s struggles as a first-year graduate student in the neuroscience program at the Anschutz Medical Campus of the University of Colorado. Mr. Holmes quit the program in June 2012, after he failed important oral exams, and declined the chance to retake them.

Prosecutors showcased pages from a spiral notebook in which Mr. Holmes inscribed murderous fantasies and nonsensical theories about life and death, and where he plotted what kind of attack to carry out, and how and where to do it.

But where prosecutors saw calculation, the defense saw “a whole lot of crazy.”

Two psychiatrists who testified for the defense said Mr. Holmes lacked the ability to tell right from wrong or act with intent — critical elements of sanity under Colorado law.

Their testimony clashed with two court-appointed psychiatrists who said that although Mr. Holmes suffered a severe mental illness on a spectrum with schizophrenia, he was not legally insane when he walked into the theater.

Some families responded with visible relief, and public officials in Colorado — many of whom attended memorial services and have met with victims’ families — said they hoped that the verdict would bring a small measure of solace. Others were warier of a sentencing process that could lead to years of appeals if Mr. Holmes is sentenced to death.

“This has been an emotional and difficult time for the victims, their families, loved ones and friends,” Gov. John W. Hickenlooper of Colorado said in a statement. “My hope is that this step brings some peace to each of them and begins the healing process for all of Colorado.”

After the verdict was delivered, Jansen Young stood outside the courthouse in an afternoon rain and said she felt a weight lifted. When the shooting started that night, her boyfriend, Jonathan Blunk, pushed her under the seats and boxed her in, she said. He was killed, and on Thursday, his name was the first one read in the litany of murder victims.

Ms. Young said she had looked at Mr. Holmes in court and could not fathom his demeanor.

“It’s amazing to me that there is no response,” she said.

Jessica Watts, a cousin of Mr. Blunk, said the pain she experienced during the trial had gotten so bad that a month ago she stopped attending. She spent the summer going to the pool and zoo with her children — following the advice that another victim’s family member had given her, to focus on the living — but on Thursday, her phone started ringing.

She said she began shaking as the verdict was read, and tried to calm herself by thinking about the people for whom she had come to court that day. “It’s all these families that have been touched by this massive tragedy,” Ms. Watts said. “Win, lose, whatever, there’s 12 people that are never coming back.”

Read: aurora-doc-jury-instructions-james-holmes

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