Colorado theater gunman charged with 24 counts of murder

July 30, 2012

[Updated at 1:45 p.m. ET]

Prosecutors on Monday charged James Holmes with two dozen counts of first-degree murder and more than 100 other violent offenses related to the recent deadly rampage at a Colorado movie theater.

Holmes, who appeared in court with the same cartoonish orange-red hair he had at the time of the shooting, said only one word during Monday’s hearing.

“Yes,” he answered when asked by the judge if he agreed to waive his right to a preliminary hearing in the next 35 days.

Police say Holmes, 24, blasted his way through a packed movie house during a premiere showing of Batman “The Dark Knight Rises” in Aurora.

Twelve victims died in the attack, 58 others were wounded. The melee is among the worst mass shootings in modern-day American history. Prosecutors filed a total of 142 criminal charges against him, including 116 counts of attempted murder. The 24 murder charges reflect dual charges (premeditated and without remorse) by the prosecutors.

During Monday’s hearing, Judge William Sylvester carefully explained to Holmes that the charges carry a minimum sentence of life in prison and a maximum of death. The district attorney near Denver has not announced if she will seek the death penalty against the alleged gunman.

Half of the 110-seat courtroom was filled with victims or their families. One victim entered the courtroom in a wheelchair with a bandage on her left leg. Blood from a wound could be seen through the bandage.

Some stared intently at Holmes, who sat at the defense table to the right of his two attorneys, throughout the 50-minute hearing. Others focused on Judge Sylvester and attorneys as they discussed procedural issues and hearing dates. Some wore sunglasses in the court, while one woman cried openly. Three people, including a woman with bandaged arm, wore Batman T-shirts.

“It saddens our family that there is a man that has so much hate and evil in his heart,” the family of Gordon Cowden said in a statement after Monday’s hearing. “We feel confident that our judicial system, as will God and the public, see to it that this evil man receives the punishment he deserves and our hope and prayers are that one day, he will face God with remorse and tremendous sorrow for his actions.”

Cowden, 51, had taken his two teenagers to see the midnight premiere. His children escaped the shooting spree without injury.

“Gordon was a man, working with their mom, to raise four children, to build a solid foundation for each; teaching them to love life, love themselves, love others and to love God,” his family said. “And though this evil man has caused our family so much hurt and pain he cannot, nor can anyone ever take away or ever permanently damage this foundation of love for each other, for others, for life and for God.”

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Holmes was clad in tactical gear and possessed four guns and a stockpile of ammo when he surrendered to officers behind the cinema shortly after the July 20 shooting spree. He did not resist arrest, but investigators have since described the former neuroscience doctoral student as uncooperative.

Police say Holmes legally purchased the guns in May and June, but allegedly began stockpiling ammo and other gear four months ago.

“This is not a whodunit. … The only possible defense is insanity,” Craig Silverman, a former chief deputy district attorney in Denver, told the Associated Press.

At Monday’s hearing, attorneys also argued a defense motion to find out who leaked information to the news media about a package the former grad student allegedly sent to his psychiatrist at the University of Colorado Denver.

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Authorities seized the package July 23, three days after the shooting, after finding it in the mail room of the medical campus where Holmes studied. Several media outlets reported that it contained a notebook with descriptions of an attack, but Arapahoe County District Attorney Carol Chambers said in court papers that the parcel hadn’t been opened by the time the “inaccurate” news reports appeared.

On Friday, court papers revealed that Holmes was seeing a psychiatrist at the university. But they did not say how long he was seeing Dr. Lynne Fenton and if it was for a mental illness or another problem.

The University of Colorado’s website identified Fenton as the medical director of the school’s Student Mental Health Services. An online resume listed schizophrenia as one of her research interests and stated that she sees 10 to 15 graduate students a week for medication and psychotherapy, as well as 5 to 10 patients in her general practice as a psychiatrist, the Associated Press reported.

Under Colorado law, defendants are not legally liable for their acts if their minds are so “diseased” that they cannot distinguish between right and wrong. However, the law warns that “care should be taken not to confuse such mental disease or defect with moral obliquity, mental depravity, or passion growing out of anger, revenge, hatred, or other motives, and kindred evil conditions.”

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Experts say there are two levels of insanity defenses. Holmes’ public defenders could argue he is not mentally competent to stand trial, like Jared Loughner, who killed six people when he shot Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson in 2011. Loughner has pleaded not guilty to charges in the shooting. He has been diagnosed with schizophrenia and is undergoing treatment at a Missouri prison facility in a bid to make him mentally fit to stand trial.

If Holmes’ attorneys cannot convince the court that he is mentally incompetent, and he is convicted, they can try to stave off a possible death penalty by arguing he is mentally ill.

Sam Kamin, a law professor at the University of Denver, said there is “pronounced” evidence that the attack was premeditated, which would seem to make an insanity defense difficult. “But,” he told the Associated Press, “the things that we don’t know are what this case is going to hinge on, and that’s his mental state.”

(The Associated Press and Yahoo! staffer Tim Skillern in Centennial, Colo., contributed to this report.)

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