Jury selection in Aurora theater shooting case begins Tuesday

20 Jan 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Caldwell: Value of James Holmes trial goes beyond legal questions.

When you get down to it, the only major legal issue left to decide in the trial of James Holmes is what kind of insane he was when he sprayed bullets into an Aurora movie theater. Had their final date taken them to different seats, at another cinema, on some other warm summer night, Jansen Young and Jon Blunk might be happily celebrating Blunk’s 29th birthday in Aurora, Colorado, on Tuesday.Just weeks after the start of the Boston Marathon bombing trial, another high-profile trial is set to begin Tuesday, as jury selection begins in Denver for the Aurora, Colo., massacre.

DENVER (AP) — 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. 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.

Or was it the type that allowed him to plot a massacre yet understand what he was doing was wrong, therefore making him eligible for the death penalty? It’s even harder to lose someone you love in a split moment, when you didn’t think they were going to just go right then.” She is taking the coincidence of the calendar as a message of solidarity. “Jon wants this to be over with,” she said. 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. So, there will be eight or 10 months of trial, perhaps hundreds of witnesses, and a serious commitment of time from jurors, who will see their lives and peace of mind disrupted.

James Holmes’s lawyers admit that he was the gunman in body armour who killed Blunk and 11 other people, wounded 70 more, and terrorised dozens who scrambled out of the exits, about half an hour into the midnight premiere of the Batman film at Aurora’s Century 16 cinema, on 20 July 2012. 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.

It might help us understand how a young man smart enough to get into a doctoral program in neuroscience at the University of Colorado could have gotten to the point where he amassed a serious stash of weapons and ammunition, dyed his hair orange and went on a rampage. 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.

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. It just doesn’t usually come to this.” Holmes, 27, was arrested as he stripped off his combat gear in the parking lot of the Century 16 movie theater in Aurora, where 12 people were killed and 70 injured during a midnight showing of a new Batman movie. In July 2013, his lawyers admitted in pretrial court filings that their client was the shooter but contended he had been “in the throes of a psychotic episode.” Last month, his parents, Robert and Arlene Holmes, broke their silence to issue a statement expressing sympathy with the victims but also saying their son “is not a monster.” They pleaded for his life to be spared: “He is a human being gripped by a severe mental illness.” The case is being closely watched for its legal implications. Holmes’s case has already been beset by multiple delays, pre-trial disputes, an avalanche of legal paperwork, and the appointment of a replacement judge.

Potential jurors arriving at the courthouse Tuesday and in the following days will fill out a 75-question survey, which Fleming-Ginn said “is going to weed out a lot of jurors” right away. Under Colorado law, defendants are not legally liable for their acts if their minds are so “diseased” that they cannot distinguish right from wrong. 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.

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 people who specialize in such things undoubtedly will scrutinize the testimony, searching for warning signs and facts common to other mass shooters. 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. But the political reality is that the majority of the American public will not get behind the sort of broad, strict gun control that could make a difference, and that’s assuming it would be constitutional.

Several survivors of Holmes’s shooting say they agree with Brauchler, having set aside abstract principles for the man who blighted their lives in a few terrifying minutes. “I’m an anti-death penalty person, philosophically,” said Marcus Weaver, 44, who was shot twice in his right shoulder by Holmes, and saw his friend Rebecca Wingo killed. “But in this case – when you walk into a theatre in ballistic gear and open fire on the audience – there is no other penalty warranted.” “It’s hard for me to say that I think this man deserves to die,” said Young. “I don’t think anyone deserves to lose a life, even though he did something so terrible. 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. 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.

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. So know this: There is value, painful and horrifying as it will be, in navigating the homicidal landscape that James Holmes created in an effort to understand what seems insane and unfathomable. While he could theoretically secure release one day by persuading authorities that he no longer poses a threat to himself or others, psychiatrists are unlikely to sign off on freeing such a mass killer.

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. If Holmes is found guilty of murder, the jury would then decide whether he should be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole or executed. 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.

Amid outrage generated by the not guilty due to insanity verdict given in 1982 to John Hinckley Jr for attempting to assassinate President Reagan, most US states changed their laws to force such defendants to prove that they were insane. 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. Holmes had seen two other mental health professionals and sent a text message to a classmate asking about manic dysphoria, a mental condition involving periods of mania and depression. 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.

Phillips, who lives in San Antonio, will not attend jury selection Tuesday and has not set foot in the courtroom over the last 2 1/2 years. “I am so afraid of my emotions of being in the same room with such evil,” she said. 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. He researched online and carried out reconnaissance at the cinema beforehand, they say, and set explosive booby traps at his home in anticipation of a raid by authorities after the massacre. He also spent several months steadily accumulating an AR-15 rifle, a 12-gauge shotgun and a Glock pistol from different gun shops, and ammunition from an internet retailer. Holmes may struggle to overcome a basic scepticism typically displayed among jurors asked to accept an insanity plea as an explanation for serious crimes, according to people with experience of its use in Colorado.

Samour will tell them they may not discuss the case with anyone, do any independent research on it, or watch, read or listen to news reports about it. 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. Iris Eytan, an attorney in Denver who specialises in representing mentally ill defendants, said that despite Holmes being a “classic case of insanity”, the jury may be unmoved. “There is such a stigma about this defence that the cards are always against the defendant no matter what,” said Eytan. “‘Someone is trying to get off by claiming they are crazy’ – that’s what people think. 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.” Among other evidence, photographs showing that Holmes’s car had a skull-shaped gearstick – which his lawyers wanted barred – have also been permitted.

Most important and controversial, however, may be a second independent evaluation carried out for the court after Judge Carlos Samour ruled that a first was “incomplete and inadequate”. But people familiar with insanity pleas in the Colorado courts system suggested that even if it stopped short of declaring Holmes insane, a finding that Holmes none the less had serious mental health problems might make it difficult for prosecutors to persuade jurors to deliver a death sentence in the trial’s second phase. He is one of many preparing for their opportunity to face Holmes once again in the coming months. “I wouldn’t say I’m looking forward to it,” said Young. “But I’m ready.”

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