Colorado theater shooting trial: Jury selection begins Tuesday

19 Jan 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Aurora theater shooting trial could strain limits of jury service.

CENTENNIAL, Colo. DENVER One of the deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history will be replayed in a Colorado courtroom — but only after an unprecedented jury pool of 9,000 people is winnowed to a handful to decide whether James Holmes was insane when he opened fire in a suburban movie theater.The outcome of the Aurora movie theater shooting trial may very well be decided in the next few months, before any evidence is offered or any witness testifies. Jury selection in the trial of the man accused of killing 12 people and injuring 70 others in an attack on a Colorado movie theater is set to begin, with the first of 9,000 prospective jurors reporting to court on Tuesday.

Such is the significance that attorneys place on jury selection, which begins Tuesday in the theater shooting case when the first wave of 9,000 summoned jurors shows up at the Arapahoe County courthouse. His survival has sparked an emotionally charged debate in which his parents have begged for a plea deal that would save his life, while many survivors and family members of victims have demanded that he stand trial and face the death penalty if convicted. It will have been 914 days since authorities say Holmes burst into a packed suburban movie theater in the Denver suburb of Aurora, tossed a tear gas canister into the crowd and opened fire. When the actual trial begins — sometime in late May or early June — the jurors picked to hear the case must be able both to find James Holmes not guilty by reason of insanity or to sentence him to death, all depending only on the evidence they hear during the trial.

They will weigh whether Holmes was sane in July 2012, when he killed 12 people inside the Century Aurora 16 movie theater and tried to kill 70 others, and, if they find he was, they will decide whether he should be executed. It could provide a look into the mind of Holmes, whose attorneys acknowledge he was the gunman in the July 20, 2012, attack but say he was in the grip of a psychotic episode at the time. “The public is going to get an insight into the mind of a killer who says he doesn’t know right from wrong,” said Alan Tuerkheimer, a Chicago-based jury consultant. “It is really rare. Now, Brauchler is overseeing the closely watched prosecution of accused Colorado theater shooter James Holmes, and his hands-on style and speculation about his political ambitions have only intensified the spotlight on his office.

The gunshots came less than a second apart, round after round, until 12 people were dead and more than 70 others injured, some permanently, in the barrage of shotgun and semiautomatic gunfire let loose during a screening of the Batman movie “The Dark Knight Rises.” It has never been in doubt that Holmes, a once brilliant but deeply troubled neuroscience student at the University of Colorado-Denver, pulled the trigger. Add to those challenges the publicity surrounding the case, which could cause some potential jurors to lie during jury selection to avoid serving and others to lie in the hopes of being picked. “When the cases are this high profile, it really changes the dynamics quite a bit,” said Karen Fleming-Ginn, a California-based trial consultant who specializes in advising lawyers how to select juries. Even harder, during what will likely be the most stressful time of their lives, they will be forbidden from talking to anyone about the experience — not their family or fellow jurors or counselors. Until deliberations begin sometime late this year, the jurors will bear that stress in silence, despite a growing body of research that shows jury service on traumatic cases can lead to mental and physical illness and impact jurors’ decision-making. Since the 1930s, perpetrators of public mass shootings nationwide are more likely to die at the scene than to be captured, according to research by Minnesota Department of Corrections official Grant Duwe.

Jurors who are called back for more detailed questions will face deep scrutiny of their views on capital punishment, the criminal justice system and mental illness. THE VICTIMS: The dead included a 6-year-old girl, two active-duty servicemen, a single mom, an aspiring broadcaster who survived a mall shooting in Toronto and a 27-year-old celebrating his birthday and wedding anniversary. Rather, the challenge is to find people who can honestly set aside what they’ve heard about it and decide a verdict based only on what’s presented in court. Jessica Brylo, a trial consultant in Denver, said attorneys on both sides may have organized focus groups to help them identify ways to ferret out hidden bias. When he was done, he joined the Army Reserves and took a job in the neighboring Jefferson County district attorney’s office, where he helped secure prison time for two men involved in selling weapons to the Columbine High School shooters.

And after the trial is over, some jurors have said they experienced flashbacks. “Some people describe this in the same ballpark as post-traumatic stress disorder,” said James Acker, a colleague of Bowers’ at the Capital Jury Project, which tracks research on jurors serving in death penalty cases. Now a lieutenant colonel, the square-jawed prosecutor has had his career interrupted by two tours of active duty, including one that sent him to Iraq shortly after he prosecuted a Fort Carson solider who shot a Taliban leader to death as he lay in an Afghan jail cell.

The actual questioning of individual jurors is not expected to begin until mid-February, with the final 12 jurors and 12 alternatives not seated until May, according to court administrators. When questioning a juror, the lawyers may ask broad demographical questions about what kind of television shows the juror watches or what kind of car the juror owns. John Hickenlooper in May 2013 suspended the death sentence of a man Brauchler’s predecessors prosecuted for killing four people at a restaurant in 1993. But — because judges routinely order jurors not to talk about the case with anyone, to protect the trial’s integrity — counseling is almost never available to help jurors manage stress during the case.

On the front steps of the state capitol, Brauchler laced into the Democratic governor’s decision. “Everyone was just blown away by how well Brauchler did at being the voice of opposition,” said Dick Wadhams, former chairman of the state Republican party. “That created a real buzz among Republicans.” Brauchler concluded it was impossible to challenge Hickenlooper with the Holmes case looming. George Brauchler refused, proclaiming that, for Holmes, “justice is death.” In Colorado, someone who is insane cannot be put to death, and it is up to the prosecution to convince a jury that the defendant was sane at the moment of the crime. Over more than two years, the prosecution has painted Holmes as a man whose life was unraveling, so he launched a methodical plan to kill as many people as possible, amassing body armor, weapons, explosives and ammunition in the months prior to the shootings. “It’s been absolutely brutal for the families. We would have liked to see this over a long, long time ago,” said Sandy Phillips, whose 24-year-old daughter, Jessica Ghawi, an aspiring sports journalist, was killed in the massacre.

However, Brauchler bristles at suggestions that he’s a tough-on-crime caricature and points to other cases that show his focus is on justice, not punishment. Those jurors must depend on a $50-a-day payment from the courts — an amount that hasn’t been increased since it was put into law in 1990, when $50 had roughly twice the buying power that it does now. Every single evening when I cuddle up with my husband and I am falling asleep, you think of the part of your life that is missing and always will be.” Dave Hoover, whose 18-year-old nephew, A.J.

When Brauchler ran for district attorney, Deasy asked him about the mammoth trial he would inherit.”He had the exact right response and that was, ‘This thing is so big I don’t even know how to put my arms around it,'” Deasy said. “He’s wrestled with how to handle this case for a long time because, how could he not?” “He talks about everything but politics,” Zvonek said. “At the end of this (Holmes case), if all goes very well for him, I wouldn’t be surprised if he doesn’t run for anything.”

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