* James Holmes charged with the murder of 12 people in film theater
* Unshaven, alert but disinterested at third court appearance
* News media request court papers be unsealed, opened to public (Adds details, expert comment)
By Keith Coffman
CENTENNIAL, Colo., Aug 9 (Reuters) - Accused Colorado gunman James Holmes, charged with murder over a shooting rampage last month at a movie theater in a Denver suburb, has a “mental illness” and tried to get help before the shooting, his defense attorney said in court on Thursday.
Holmes’ public defender, in a hearing on media access to court files in the case, repeatedly made references to his client’s unspecified mental illness, giving the first clear sign that Holmes’ lawyers might be considering an insanity defense.
“He tried to get help with his mental illness,” Daniel King said of his client, a 24-year-old former neuroscience graduate student at the University of Colorado who faces 24 counts of first-degree murder and 116 counts of attempted murder.
Holmes is accused of bursting into a midnight screening of “The Dark Knight Rises” in the Denver suburb of Aurora and opening fire in the crowded theater, killing 12 people and wounding 58 others.
Holmes, who seemed to have not shaved for days, appeared in court on Thursday wearing maroon prison garb and shackled at his hands and ankles, with his dyed hair fading to pink in some places from its original reddish-orange.
He seemed alert but disinterested in his third appearance in a Colorado courtroom since the July 20 mass shooting. He mostly stared straight ahead and did not talk to his lawyers.
“Mental illness is the only possible defense available in this case. It is hardly a whodunit,” Craig Silverman, a former chief deputy district attorney in Denver who now practices law privately, told Reuters.
“By saying it repeatedly in open court, Holmes’ lawyers provide the sound bite that will be the basis of the defense,” he said. “It wasn’t just for the court to hear but it was for the people in the courtroom and for people in the press to report.”
Court papers filed by defense attorneys two weeks ago said Holmes had been a patient of the medical director for student mental health services on campus before he filed paperwork to drop out of the competitive graduate program.
That psychiatrist, Dr. Lynne Fenton, reported Holmes to a campus threat assessment team and a campus police officer over concerns about her patient, according to media reports.
Lawyers for Fenton and the campus police officer declined to comment to Reuters on those reports. The university has also declined to comment on the reports but said it had hired a former federal prosecutor to probe its dealings with Holmes.
As in many states, mental health care providers in Colorado must warn authorities of potential violent behavior only when a patient has communicated a serious threat of imminent physical violence against a specific target.
Judge William Sylvester said he would consider a request by 20 media organizations to unseal and make public documents detailing the murder case against Holmes, and would issue a written ruling later.
Lawyers representing news organizations sought the release of the papers in a written motion that said sealing them “undermines our nation’s firm commitment to the transparency and public accountability of the criminal justice system.”
In the motion, lawyers for the media outlets, including The New York Times Co., The Associated Press, The Denver Post, and CBS News, argued that the U.S. Constitution and state case law requires a presumption of openness. Thomson Reuters is not a party to the motion.
In most court cases, documents are available to the public.
Both prosecutors and defense lawyers objected, saying that it was too early to open the file because the investigation was still ongoing.
“The harm, judge, is very real with the release of the file at this point,” defense attorney King said.
Media lawyer Steven Zansberg argued that the decision to close the bulk of the file made it difficult for the public to understand what happened during the shooting, and why.
The media has recently been successful in getting some documents unsealed in the case of Jared Loughner, who was charged last year in a deadly shooting spree that killed six people and gravely wounded Representative Gabrielle Giffords.
As the Holmes case gets further along, there may be other parties who express concerns over what is sealed. Attorneys representing families of the victims may insist that certain photographs from the crime scene not be released, for example.
Holmes is being held without bond and in solitary confinement at the Arapahoe County jail. (Additional reporting by Dan Whitcomb; Writing by Mary Slosson; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Anthony Boadle)