The Colorado district attorney in charge of prosecuting James Eagan Holmes couldn’t suppress some harsh words for the accused theater shooter at a Monday hearing. “It’s my determination and my intention that in this case for James Eagan Holmes justice is death,” said George Brauchler, Arapahoe County’s district attorney, telling the Centennial, Colo., courtroom that prosecutors will pursue the death penalty against Holmes for allegedly shooting to death 12 people and wounding 70 others at a suburban Denver movie theater in July. Holmes showed no visible reaction. But the judge in the case did.
Brauchler’s announcement almost instantly prompted the trial judge to step down from the case. Citing “logistical demands” and heavy use of court resources that takes place in a death-penalty trial, 18th Judicial District Chief Judge William Sylvester reassigned the trial to Judge Carlos Samour, who took over the case immediately.
In affirming their decision to seek the death penalty against Holmes, the prosecution has effectively rejected the plea bargain proposed by the alleged shooter’s defense attorneys last week. In a very public bout of legal wrangling, Holmes’ lawyers offered that he would plead guilty to all charges in order to avoid the death penalty, instead spending the rest of his life imprisoned with no chance of parole. Prosecutors were unsatisfied with the deal because they said the defense had not given them the necessary information to do an evaluation of the crime and felt that a plea agreement would be difficult to come to, according to court papers. This latest conflict between the two sides also comes just two weeks after a frustrated Judge Sylvester entered a not-guilty plea on his behalf because defense attorneys maxed out their time to enter a plea, although they could have later changed it.
The pursuit of capital punishment almost certainly means a lengthy trial — possibly years long — and if convicted and sentenced to death, he would be only the second person to be executed in the state since capital punishment was reinstated there in 1977. In that case, Gary Davis was put to death in 1997 for the kidnapping and murder of a woman in 1986. Lethal injection is the only allowed method of execution in the state of Colorado.
Holmes, 25, a former University of Colorado graduate student, faces 166 charges of murder and attempted murder in a mass shooting at an Aurora, Colo., midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises. The rampage he unleashed killed 12 people and wounded another 70. Police said he gathered an entire cache of weapons to carry out the murders and also booby-trapped his nearby apartment with explosives to kill anyone seeking to enter. The bloody incident was one of several particularly violent mass-shooting episodes taking place in 2012 that fueled the national gun-control debate.
Brauchler said in the hearing that he had spoken to more than 800 people who were either victims or family members of the slain before he made his decision. Among victims attending the hearing there were mixed feelings about the prosecution’s intentions and an ambivalence at what is to come. Pierce O’Farrill, who was shot three times in the incident, expressed dismay about the next steps in the trial. “It could be 10 or 15 years before he’s executed. I would be in my 40s, and I’m planning to have a family, and the thought of having to look back and reliving everything at that point in my life, it would be difficult,” he told reporters.
But Jessica Watts, whose cousin, Jonathan Blunk, was killed in the shooting said she had “wavered” about what should be done. “It would be nice to spare us the pain of having to relive traumatic photos and testimony. But other people want to see hardcore justice brought down, and if it has to come down to it, the prosecution will definitely prove their case,” she told KMGH-TV.
Prior to Monday’s hearing, Sylvester had scheduled a trial to begin on Aug. 5, but now with the case under new stewardship, Samour has set a new date of Feb. 3, 2014. The proceedings are expected to last four months — prosecutors had been hoping to have the case wrapped up by next spring, but defense attorneys doubt that time frame can be accomplished.