CENTENNIAL, Colo. (Reuters) - Colorado movie massacre gunman James Holmes was found guilty on Thursday of multiple counts of first degree murder, a verdict that enables prosecutors to seek the death penalty for the former graduate student who killed 12 people and wounded 70 at a midnight premiere of a Batman film in 2012.
After a three-month trial in which hundreds of witnesses testified and thousands of pieces of evidence were presented, jurors deliberated for about a day and a half, then found Holmes guilty on all 165 counts against him. The panel of nine women and three men rejected the defense’s claim that he was legally insane.
Before the jury was called in at around 4:00 p.m. local time (1800 EDT), Arapahoe County District Court Judge Carlos Samour warned the packed public gallery to refrain from emotional outbursts. In a hushed courtroom, he began reading the guilty verdicts and did not finish until more than an hour later.
Families of the victims who were in court smiled as one guilty verdict after another was read, clasping hands and clapping each other on the back.
Holmes showed no reaction. Wearing a blue, long-sleeved shirt and tan slacks, and tethered to the floor, he stood beside his court-appointed attorneys, looking straight ahead with his hands in his pockets.
Outside, Jansen Young, whose 26-year-old boyfriend Jonathan Blunk was killed in the theater, told reporters, “I felt so much relief. I just felt closure.” Young said she was pushing for Holmes to get the death penalty.
Monday is the third anniversary of the massacre, and some people hailed the verdict on social media, many using the Twitter hashtag #AuroraStrong.
“My community and I can breathe a little more easily now,” said one message.
“Justice is served,” read another.
Samour told the jurors to return on Wednesday. The trial now enters the punishment phase, when they must determine whether Holmes, 27, should be put to death or serve a mandatory life sentence with no possibility of parole.
That process is expected to last until late August, with both sides bringing a fresh round of witnesses.
Prosecutors are likely to call survivors or relatives of those killed, some of whom had called for Holmes to be executed.
The defense team could call witnesses including more mental health professionals, and possibly even Holmes’ parents, Arlene and Bob, who have attended court for most of the trial.
The defense had conceded that Holmes was the shooter, but presented expert witnesses who testified that the former neuroscience student was not in control of his actions because he suffered from schizophrenia and heard voices ordering him to kill.
The prosecution called two court-appointed psychiatrists who concluded that Holmes was legally sane when he plotted and carried out the rampage at a multiplex in the Denver suburb of Aurora.
District Attorney George Brauchler said the gunman was unusually intelligent but socially inept, and harbored a long-standing hatred of humanity.
He said the defendant could not take it when he did poorly on exams at the University of Colorado, and broke up with the only girlfriend with whom he had ever been intimate.
The prosecution argued that Holmes’ detailed preparations for the attack showed that he knew what he was doing, and knew it was wrong. They presented evidence about his purchases of guns, and showed how he conducted online research into bomb-making so he could booby-trap his apartment before he left for the cinema.
Holmes rigged the bombs and turned loud music on the stereo, hoping someone would open the door and trigger a deadly blast. The devices were later defused by a police bomb squad.
During the trial dozens of wounded survivors testified about how they hid behind plastic chairs from the hail of bullets, and stumbled over the bodies of loved ones as they tried to flee.
Brauchler’s voice broke as he showed photographs of the dead during his closing argument.
“That guy, sitting right there,” he said, pointing at Holmes. “He did this.”
Holmes bought a ticket for the screening at Aurora’s Century 16 multiplex before slipping out to his car behind the building and changing into what prosecutors called a “kill suit” of ballistic helmet, gas mask, and head to toe body armor.
He returned and lobbed a teargas canister into the theater, then opened fire with a semiautomatic rifle, pump action shotgun and pistol. He was listening to loud techno music on headphones at the time, “to block out the screams,” the prosecution said.
Holmes declined to testify in his own defense, but jurors did watch more than 22 hours of a videotaped sanity examination conducted by one of the two court-appointed psychiatrists.
In the video, Holmes confirmed most of the details of the mass shooting, including his weapons purchases and his plan to draw police and other first responders away from the theater by blowing up his apartment.
The jury also heard emails that Holmes sent to his parents discussing everyday topics, including the weather and a savings account, all while he was steadily amassing “overwhelming” firepower, including steel-penetrating rounds.
Holmes, who graduated with honors from the University of California, Riverside, had no previous criminal record.
He had been seeing a school psychiatrist and dropped out of a graduate program at CU’s Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora just weeks before the attack.
Reporting by Keith Coffman; Additional reporting by Daniel Wallis; Editing by Dave Gregorio, Toni Reinhold