Key issues as Colorado theater shooting trial begins

20 Jan 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

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

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. It will be far more complicated for jurors, who will wrestle with whether he was insane when he barged into a packed movie theater, clad in combat gear, and opened fire on moviegoers in July 2012.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. Their task will be to decide whether James Holmes was legally insane at the time of the July 20, 2012, attack during a showing of a Batman movie in the Denver suburb of Aurora.

Experts say it is rare to have a mass shooter appear in court to face charges — many either are killed by police or commit suicide. “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. 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. 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. In the 2-1/2 years since the shooting, the case has sparked an emotionally charged debate, with his parents begging for a plea deal that would save his life while many survivors and family members of victims have demanded that he be put to death.

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. More detailed questioning of potential jurors will begin in mid-February. “We deeply appreciate your participation in this important aspect of our democratic society,” Judge Carlos Samour will tell the jurors Tuesday, according to his prepared remarks. “Without you, we could not have jury trials of the system of justice our nation enjoys.” Tuesday’s start of jury selection comes 914 days after the July 2012 attack on the Century Aurora 16 movie theater, in which 12 people were killed and 70 others wounded. So, while Tuesday marks the end of one journey, those impacted by the attack know the day also marks the beginning of another. “We’ve all been to therapists and have talked to our families and have our support groups, so we’re prepared,” said Marcus Weaver, who was shot in the arm and whose friend, Rebecca Wingo, died in the attack. “It’s gonna be quite the journey.”

I don’t think, however, there’s any arguing that what he did — and he has admitted to the shooting in pursuing a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity — was monstrous. 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. 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. The people who specialize in such things undoubtedly will scrutinize the testimony, searching for warning signs and facts common to other mass shooters.

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. He deserves justice.” If Holmes is convicted, the jury will be asked to decide in a second phase of the trial whether he should be executed or sentenced to life in prison. Consider that one of the seminal works in understanding school shootings is a 2002 Secret Service study in which those who knew the shooters were interviewed in some depth. 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.

Because the plea is rare and defined differently from state to state, it is not well understood by the public, according to an analysis of the plea in this case published in the Journal of Law and Social Deviance. 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. 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. Coloradans aren’t as opposed to the death penalty as many Massachusetts residents are: A poll conducted by The Denver Post found that 68 percent of Coloradans favor the death penalty.

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.

A minister in Boston who has worked closely with victims of the Boston Marathon bombings told the Monitor in December that the same specialist had been reaching out to victims involved in that attack as well. 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.

And it is difficult to properly explain to a jury, no matter how many times you try, that the burden is on the prosecution.” The sheer scale of death and agony caused by Holmes will only add to the challenge facing his lawyers. Among other evidence, photographs showing that Holmes’s car had a skull-shaped gearstick – which his lawyers wanted barred – have also been permitted. 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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