CENTENNIAL, Colo. (MCT) — The hair was still bright orange, but this time it lay neatly combed into bangs. The demeanor was more focused, less wild-eyed than one week before.
Outwardly, it seemed to be a different James Eagan Holmes who appeared in court Monday to face 142 criminal counts, including 24 of first degree murder, stemming from the mass shooting at a movie theater in nearby Aurora. This was a more composed figure, one who made eye contact with the judge and answered with a polite “Yes” to the one question he was asked.
To family members and friends of those who died or were wounded, those outward manifestations were far less important than their perceptions of the suspect’s inner self which they described by such terms as “evil,” “coldblooded” and “coward.”
“He was like an animal cowering in a corner,” said Don Lader, 27, who wore a Batman T-shirt to court and said he was in the theater the night of the shooting to see the Batman movie, “The Dark Knight Rises.” In court, he said, Holmes acted “like he didn’t have any other options, like he was trapped by us.
“You could feel the emotion in the room,” Lader added.
In addition to the 140 counts of murder or attempted murder, Arapahoe County District Attorney Carol Chambers filed two other charges. One is an “enhancement” for the use of firearms, which would allow for consecutive sentences. The other is for illegal possession of an explosive or incendiary device. This presumably refers either to the canisters of smoke or gas that Holmes’ allegedly threw in the theater or to the explosives with which he allegedly booby trapped his apartment.
The maximum penalty for a first-degree murder conviction is death. It is not known yet whether prosecutors will seek the death penalty.
The complaint charges Holmes twice for each of the 12 people killed and 58 people injured in the shooting. One set of charges accused him of acting with “deliberation” and “intent.” The other set accused him of carrying out the crimes with “universal malice” and “extreme indifference to the value of human life generally.”
The second set, charging him with indifference to life, may represent “a fallback theory” in case prosecutors fail to prove intent, according to Marianne Wesson, a professor at the University of Colorado Law School and an expert in criminal law.
“That is because prosecutors in jury trials sometimes find it difficult to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the actor had the capacity to deliberate in a rational way,” she said in an interview. There has been speculation that Holmes, 24, who had been under psychiatric care, will mount an insanity defense.
Because of a gag order in the case, neither prosecutors nor defense lawyers were allowed to publicly discuss the charges or their strategy. Judge William B. Sylvester also banned cameras from the courtroom, making the hearing less of a public spectacle than Holmes’ initial court appearance the previous week.
In that hearing, Holmes created a sensation by appearing with tousled, bright orange hair and an array of odd facial expressions.
Holmes had looked “spaced out and out of touch” at that hearing, but appeared much more alert on Monday, said Maryellen Hansen of Denver, who was among the relatives of victims who packed the courtroom. Her niece, Ashley Moser, 26, was shot and seriously wounded, and Moser’s 6-year-old daughter, Veronica Moser-Sullivan, was killed.
“It was important to come today to see him as what he was,” Hansen said, calling Holmes “an evil, diabolical presence” with a “flat affect.”
“He had a poker face on,” she said, “so coldblooded, very indifferent.”
Also in the courtroom was Rita Paulina, 45, who was shot in the arm and leg. She arrived in a wheelchair, still wearing a hospital bracelet and bandages, and took a seat in the fourth row. A man next to her massaged her left hand, below her bandaged forearm.
Sylvester set Nov. 13 for a preliminary hearing in the July 20 shooting. The only time Holmes spoke during the hearing was when he was asked about that date. Other hearings are expected sooner on motions, including one from media outlets seeking access to records.
After the preliminary hearing, Holmes will be arraigned and asked to enter a plea. The district attorney’s office will then have 63 days to decide whether to seek the death penalty.
William Pizzi, emeritus professor of law at the University of Colorado Law School, said reaching a final decision on whether to seek the death penalty won’t be easy.
“Death penalty cases are very expensive, take years to resolve and are very straining on victims and their families, some of whom may not want the death penalty,” he said. “The district attorney’s office will have to weigh these factors and many others. A just result for everyone involved may be a guilty plea in return for a life sentence.”
Holmes’ mental state, assuming he is found to suffer from a mental illness, could be a complicating factor in the case.
“The big question now is this: Is James Holmes competent to stand trial?” said Barry Latzer, a professor of criminal justice at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York. “The answer to that question depends on how persuasive the shrinks are after they examine him and report their findings.”
“If he is incompetent to stand trial, they’ll hospitalize him indefinitely until he can be made competent with the help of psychotropic drugs,” Latzer said. “If the prosecutors really believe he was totally psychotic at the time of the massacre and, therefore, probably won’t get a conviction, they may agree to some sort of plea agreement in which he is placed into a mental facility.
“On the other hand, although he was seeing a psychiatrist, it may be questionable whether he was actually psychotic or had a psychotic episode,” he added. “If that’s the case, the prosecution will almost certainly seek the death penalty.”