Theater shooting defendant in court as jury selection nears

In this July 23, 2012 file photo, James Holmes sits in Arapahoe County District Court in Centennial, Colo. (AP Photo/Denver Post, RJ Sangosti, Pool, File)

DENVER (AP) — Theater shooting defendant James Holmes sat quietly and rocked slightly back and forth in his chair on Tuesday just hours before the start of the arduous process of choosing a jury to decide whether he was sane when he opened fire in a packed Colorado movie theater.

Holmes was dressed in civilian clothes and with no visible restraints, though the judge had ordered him to be tethered to the floor in a way the public couldn’t see for the trial. His dark hair was neatly trimmed, and he had a medium-length curly beard and wore oval-shaped reddish glasses.

An unprecedented jury pool of 9,000 people has been summoned and will be winnowed to a handful in the weeks ahead to hear the death penalty trial that could last until October.

The scope of jury selection and the trial is a testament to the logistical hurdles of trying the rare case of a mass shooter who survives his own attack.

“The public is going to get an insight into the mind of a killer who says he doesn’t know right from wrong,” said Alan Tuerkheimer, a Chicago-based jury consultant. “It is really rare. It just doesn’t usually come to this.”

In the 2 1/2 years since the shooting, the case has sparked an emotionally charged debate, with Holmes’ parents begging for a plea deal that would save his life while many survivors and family members of victims have demanded that he be put to death.

Twelve people died and 70 were injured in the attack during a midnight showing of a new Batman movie. Holmes, 27, was arrested as he stripped off his combat gear in the parking lot of the Century 16 movie theater.

He later pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity to multiple counts of first-degree murder and attempted murder.

If jurors find him guilty, they must then decide whether to recommend the death penalty. If Holmes is found not guilty, he would be committed indefinitely to the state mental hospital.

Defense attorneys acknowledge Holmes was the gunman in the July 20, 2012, attack but say he was in the grip of a psychotic episode at the time.

Under Colorado law, defendants are not legally liable for their acts if their minds are so “diseased” that they cannot distinguish right from wrong. Part of the reason the case has dragged on so long is the battle over whether that standard applies to Holmes.

Few details on those arguments have been made public. Prosecutors and defense attorneys remain under a long-running gag order, and court documents detailing the issue have stayed under seal.

Holmes’ sanity was evaluated by a state psychiatrist but the results were not made public. Prosecutors objected to the findings and persuaded a judge to order a second evaluation. Those results were contested by the defense.

Prosecutors previously rejected at least one proposed plea deal made by attorneys for Holmes, criticizing the lawyers for publicizing the offer and calling it a ploy meant to draw the public and the judge into what should be private plea negotiations.

Survivors of the attack and family members of victims have had a long time to get ready for a trial.

“We’ve all been to therapists and have talked to our families and have our support groups, so we’re prepared,” said Marcus Weaver, who was shot in the arm and whose friend, Rebecca Wingo, died in the attack. “It’s gonna be quite the journey.”

It could take until June to find the jurors and alternates who were not biased by the widespread news coverage of the shooting. Equally challenging will be finding jurors who were not personally affected by the attack.

Judge Carlos Samour called nearly nine times as many prospective jurors as were summoned in the ongoing Boston marathon bombing trial. That meant the county’s 600,000 residents had a nearly one-in-50 chance of being selected.

Among those summoned were 13 people who were either witnesses to the attack or have family members who work in the prosecutor’s office. They were quickly excused.

During the selection process, Holmes’ attorneys will focus on picking jurors who are morally opposed to capital punishment, even as prosecutors fight to ensure those on the panel are “death-penalty eligible,” meaning they would be open to executing Holmes.

“Because of the heinous nature of the crime and the number of victims, I can see people who would say, ‘In most instances I could not support the death penalty, and in this case, I can.'” said Joseph Rice, managing partner of the Jury Research Institute, a California-based trial consulting firm.

Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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