A Colorado judge presiding over the homicide arraignment of James Eagan Holmes, 25, charged in the mass murder at an Aurora, Colo., movie theater last summer, pleaded not guilty on his behalf Tuesday. Holmes’ defense said it needed more time for mental evaluations, and that it would be ready to enter a plea in May or June — although his lawyers did not provide a specific date. “I don’t think we could ethically stand before you and tell you we were ready to make a plea,” said defense attorney Daniel King. Frustrated, Arapahoe County District Court Judge William Sylvester replied: “How am I to make an informed decision based on the limited information you’ve given me?”
Holmes, who was being arraigned in Centennial, Colo., on 166 counts of murder and attempted murder, listened to the judge and his attorneys clad in a red jail jumpsuit, sporting disheveled brown locks and a bushy beard. His parents sat in the courtroom silently. Families of the victims were visibly disappointed, as the proceeding are now further extended.
Judge Sylvester set a trial date for Aug. 4; the defense will have an opportunity to change the plea before the trial is scheduled to begin. Several other important dates will pass before then. On April 1, prosecutors will announce whether or not they will seek the death penalty against Holmes. A motions hearing will take place May 13-15, and a status hearing on readiness for the trial will take place July 25.
Holmes, a former University of Colorado–Denver graduate student, was taken into custody on July 20 after he allegedly walked into the Century Aurora 16 theater armed with a semiautomatic rifle, a 12-gauge shotgun, smoke bombs, and a .40-caliber pistol and opened fire on moviegoersattending a midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises, killing 12 and injuring 70.
He had been expected to plead guilty by reason of insanity and still might. With an insanity plea, Holmes would be saying to the court that he was so mentally incapacitated that he could not distinguish between right and wrong and could not be held accountable for his actions. Immediately after such a plea, the judge would most likely order the immediate examination of his sanity. The prosecution and defense would have to exchange information on any mental health professional who has ever treated him. Both the defense and the prosecution would introduce expert testimony on the state of Holmes’ mental condition, both atpreliminary hearings and at the eventual trial. He would also undergo examinations to determine whether or not he is even competent to stand trial; if not, treatment could be ordered administered until he reaches a satisfactory level of competency.
After that process is completed, Holmes could decide to waive his right to a trial by jury and submit to a bench trial in which the court would administer justice in the case. But that could also be held up by the prosecutor’s objections. Indeed prosecutors will have one singular goal in a jury trial: to prove malicious intent and have Holmes sent to prison, or possibly pursue the death penalty.
However, the defense would have as much of a burden of proof as the prosecution because they must now show that Holmes did not know that he was committing a crime. “If he pleads not guilty by reason of insanity, what he is saying is ‘I did the act, but I am not criminally responsible,’ ” said Michael Perlin, director of New York Law School’s Mental Disability Law Program. “The prosecution must prove that he did the underlying fact, but if the defendant pleads not guilty by reason of insanity then it’s a concession to the fact.”