CENTENNIAL, Colo. (Reuters) - The man accused of killing 12 people in a shooting rampage at a midnight showing of the new “Batman” film in a Denver suburb made his first court appearance on Monday, looking bleary-eyed and emotionless, his unruly hair dyed shades of orange and red.
James Eagan Holmes, 24, who was arrested outside the theater after the massacre, appeared groggy during the brief hearing, staring straight ahead and occasionally closing his eyes as if fighting off sleep. He was shackled at the wrists and ankles.
About 40 members of the victims’ families were seated on the left side of the courtroom. One man seated in the front row of the gallery glared at Holmes throughout the proceedings.
When Arapahoe County District Judge William Sylvester asked Holmes a question, he remained expressionless and his attorney answered for him.
Police say he presented a far different figure last Friday when, dressed in a gas mask and body armor and toting three guns, he opened fire at a packed midnight show of “The Dark Knight Rises” at a theater complex in the Denver suburb of Aurora in the early hours.
The dead include war veterans, an aspiring sportscaster who had narrowly escaped a shooting in a Toronto mall earlier this summer and a 6-year-old girl.
The girlfriend of 24-year-old Alex Teves said he died while saving her life from the gunman in the confusion of the dark movie theater.
“He protected me. My baby didn’t hesitate. I was very confused, and he didn’t hesitate,” a tearful Amanda Lindgren, also 24, told Reuters.
Fifty-eight other people were wounded and many of them have serious injuries.
Holmes, a former neuroscience student, also left his apartment booby-trapped with explosives that authorities said could have destroyed the apartment complex. They conducted a controlled detonation over the weekend.
Police say they are still searching for a motive for the crime, which baffled fellow students and acquaintances, and have asked for assistance from the FBI’s behavioral analysis unit. They described Holmes, a native of San Diego, as a quiet high-achiever whose past gave little inkling that anything was amiss.
At the hearing the judge set a date of next Monday for formal charges to be filed.
Arapahoe County District Attorney Carol Chambers said she would consult with the wounded victims and families of the dead before making a decision on seeking the death penalty.
Chambers, who has prosecuted two of the three inmates now on Colorado’s death row, told reporters outside the courthouse that the decision on the death penalty had to be made within 60 days of his arraignment, “so it’s months down the line.”
The crime meets all the elements of Colorado capital case law, including premeditation, multiple victims, and the killing of a child, said former Denver prosecutor Craig Silverman.
“If James Holmes isn’t executed, Colorado may as well throw away its death penalty law,” he said.
“I think would be justice,” said David Sanchez, whose son-in-law Caleb Medely, 23, was shot in the head while attending the movie with his pregnant wife, Katie Medely, who is Sanchez’s daughter. Caleb Medely survived but is in critical condition.
“When it’s your own daughter, and she escaped death by mere seconds, it really makes you angry,” Sanchez said outside the courthouse. He had come for the hearing but was not able to get into the courtroom.
The judge also issued a protective, or “gag,” order in the case that limited what attorneys, law enforcement personnel and court staff could say outside of court.
It was not clear if Holmes’ parents or sister attended the hearing, but a lawyer retained by the family, Lisa Damiani, held a press conference to clarify a remark by the suspect’s mother to an ABC television reporter soon after the shooting.
Damiani, speaking in San Diego, said that at the time of that early morning phone call, Arlene Holmes was not yet aware of the attack or accusations that her son was involved.
In telling the reporter, “You have the right person,” Arlene Holmes was confirming her identity and not referring to her son, the attorney said.
Damiani said Arlene Holmes’ comment to ABC had been misconstrued by some media to suggest that she was not surprised to hear that her son had been involved in the shooting rampage.
Damiani also said that the family was “doing as well as they can” under the circumstances but would not be discussing their son or his relationship with the family.
Holmes is in solitary confinement to protect him from other prisoners. He had recently sought to leave a doctoral degree program in neuroscience at the University of Colorado’s Anschutz Medical School, a few blocks from his apartment.
University officials said that the campus was evacuated on Monday after two suspicious packages were found, but both were later determined to be harmless.
Barry Shur, dean of the graduate school, said Holmes initiated paperwork to drop out on June 10, three days after completing preliminary exams, a move he called highly unusual.
“Students in this situation are very carefully monitored and coached and counseled,” he said. “This does not happen without faculty oversight and, in fact, if any program would be put on a pedestal for that, it would be this one.”
Meanwhile “The Dark Knight Rises” took in $160.8 million at U.S. and Canadian box offices over the weekend, which was well below pre-opening estimates of a $170 million to $198 million debut, but still a strong number for the film that box office watchers said felt the impact of Friday’s shooting.
Additional reporting by Chris Francescani, Marty Graham, Claudia Parsons and Dan Whitcomb. Writing by Dan Whitcomb. Editing by David Storey and Cynthia Osterman