CENTENNIAL, Colo. (Reuters) - Accused movie theater gunman James Holmes made a brief court appearance on Friday, a day after he was ordered to face trial, but his lawyers asked for more time to prepare for a plea to charges he shot 12 people to death and wounded dozens of others.
As expected, a Colorado state court judge granted a defense request to postpone arraignment for the 25-year-old former neuroscience doctoral student to give his legal team more time to study the voluminous evidence and testimony presented by prosecutors in a preliminary hearing earlier this week.
Arraignment was set for March 12.
At the conclusion of Friday’s brief proceedings, a spectator sitting in the section of the Arapahoe County district courtroom reserved for victims and their families shouted: “Rot in hell, Holmes!”
There was no visible reaction by Holmes, who was being led out of the courtroom.
The judge, William Sylvester, huddled with lawyers in the hallway and reconvened the hearing to admonish the spectator, Steve Hernandez, whose daughter, Rebecca Wingo, died in the massacre.
“I can only begin to imagine the emotions that are raging. I’m truly sorry for your loss,” the judge told Hernandez, asking that he exert greater self control.
“I meant no disrespect to the court,” Hernandez replied, promising “no further outbursts.”
Sylvester ruled on Thursday that prosecutors had succeeded in establishing probable cause to believe that Holmes, described by his own lawyers as suffering from an unspecified mental illness, committed the crimes alleged against him and ordered that he remain held without bail to stand trial.
The ruling followed three days of wrenching testimony about the shooting, its bloody aftermath and the elaborate preparations that Holmes is accused of making for the attack.
The tragedy stands as one of the deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history and one that ranked briefly as the most lethal in 2012 - until 20 children and six adults were killed last month at a Connecticut elementary school.
Holmes is charged with multiple counts of first-degree murder and attempted murder, stemming from the July 20 rampage at a midnight screening of the Batman film “The Dark Knight Rises” in the Denver suburb of Aurora.
In addition to the 12 people who died, 58 others were wounded and a dozen more suffered other injuries.
Some legal experts say this week’s proceedings left Holmes’ lawyers little choice but to mount an insanity defense for their client.
“The defense team has nowhere else to go, given the obvious premeditation and overwhelming evidence against Holmes,” Craig Silverman, a former Denver prosecutor now in private practice as a trial attorney, told Reuters.
Once Holmes enters a plea, prosecutors will have 60 days to decide whether to seek the death penalty.
If Holmes were to plead not guilty by reason of insanity, prosecutors would bear the burden under Colorado law of proving that he was mentally capable of knowing right from wrong. However, juries have typically shown reluctance to accept an insanity defense, he said.
Silverman said prosecutors presented compelling evidence that Holmes knew right from wrong when they displayed his online dating profile, posted weeks before the shooting with the headline: “Will you visit me in prison?”
Holmes is accused of entering Theater 9 of the Century 16 multiplex with a ticket he bought 12 days in advance, then leaving through a rear exit minutes into the movie and re-entering moments later wearing body armor and a gas mask.
Armed with a shotgun, pistol and semi-automatic rifle, authorities say, Holmes lobbed a tear gas canister into the auditorium and sprayed moviegoers with bullets until one of his guns jammed, then surrendered to police without a struggle in the parking lot behind the theater.
Police testified that Holmes began assembling his collection of guns and ammunition two months before the shooting, scouted out the multiplex weeks ahead of time, and took photos of his arsenal and of himself posed with weapons and body armor.
Holmes had booby-trapped his apartment near the theater with explosives, which police said was intended to draw authorities away from the movie house while he was carrying out his assault. The bombs were later defused safely.
Reporting by Keith Coffman; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Lisa Shumaker, Stacey Joyce and Gunna Dickson