CENTENNIAL, Colo. (Reuters) - Colorado prosecutors will seek the death penalty for the man charged with killing 12 moviegoers during a showing of the Batman film “The Dark Knight Rises” last year.
District Attorney George Brauchler’s formal call for the death penalty at a hearing on Monday came after his rejection last week of a defense suggestion that James Holmes would be willing to plead guilty in exchange for a life prison term without parole.
Holmes, a 25-year-old former graduate student of neuroscience, is accused of opening fire inside a multiplex theater in suburban Denver during a midnight screening of the Batman movie last July.
It was a rampage that ranks as one of the deadliest mass shootings ever in the United States and helped to reignite a national debate over gun control.
Holmes is charged with multiple counts of murder and attempted murder in the shooting spree, which also wounded 58 moviegoers. A dozen other people suffered non-gunshot injuries as they fled the cinema in Aurora, Colorado.
“My determination for James Eagan Holmes - justice is death,” Brauchler told the judge at the start of the latest court hearing in Centennial, Colorado, outside Denver.
Holmes, who has grown a shaggy beard and longer hair since his arrest, showed no emotion as he sat silently at the defense table, shackled and wearing red prison garb and flanked by his lawyers.
When he first entered the courtroom, he glanced briefly at his parents, who were sitting with spectators.
There was an audible gasp from the victims’ side of the courtroom when Brauchler made his announcement, and Holmes’ parents looked grimly at one another.
The Aurora massacre was the most lethal of several mass shootings in 2012, until a gunman killed 20 children and six adults at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, in December.
The public outcry over the shootings pushed the debate over gun control versus the constitutionally protected right to bear arms back to the forefront of U.S. politics and led to tougher gun laws in both New York state and Colorado.
Arapahoe County District Judge William Sylvester, who had presided over the case since its inception, originally set a trial date for August 5 of this year.
But after prosecutors announced their plans to seek the death penalty, a factor likely to draw out the proceedings, Sylvester reassigned the case to a different judge, Carlos Samour Jr., who set a new trial date for February 3, 2014.
Samour said he expected the trial would last about four months and overruled a request by defense lawyers to push back the start of the trial until the summer or fall of next year.
A not-guilty plea was entered on Holmes’ behalf last month but the door remains open to the defense to substitute a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity.
Holmes’ attorneys said in a filing last week that they were prepared to mount an insanity defense. But they also wrote that prior to his arraignment on March 12, Holmes “made an offer to the prosecution to resolve the case by pleading guilty and spending the rest of his life in prison without the opportunity for parole.”
Holmes’ lawyers said prosecutors had not accepted the offer. And in a written response Brauchler called the defense move improper at this stage of the case, saying, “it was filed for the intended purpose of generating the predictable pretrial publicity.”
“The only conclusion that an objective reader would reach ... is that the defendant knows that he is guilty, the defense attorneys know he is guilty and that both of them know that he was not criminally insane,” Brauchler wrote.
Brauchler’s intentions were foreshadowed in February when he announced he had assigned a death-penalty specialist to the prosecution team.
In court pleadings, public defenders Daniel King and Tamara Brady have said Holmes has been hospitalized twice since his arrest, once for “potential self-inflicted injuries.”
At one point, jail officials determined Holmes was a danger to himself and in “immediate need of a psychiatric evaluation.” He was transported by ambulance to a Denver psychiatric ward “where he was held for several days, frequently in restraints,” his lawyers wrote.
Reporting by Keith Coffman and Jann Tracey; Editing by G Crosse, Steve Gorman, Dan Whitcomb and David Brunnstrom