Theater shooting trial tries to look in shooter’s mind

Judge Carlos A. Samour Jr., top right, presides over the opening of the trial of Colorado theater shooter James Holmes, far left, Monday in Centennial, Colo.  Associated Press
Judge Carlos A. Samour Jr., top right, presides over the opening of the trial of Colorado theater shooter James Holmes, far left, Monday in Centennial, Colo.
Associated Press

By Sadie Gurman
Associated Press

CENTENNIAL, Colo. — Two versions of the unstable mind of James Holmes were presented to a jury Monday as lawyers revealed many more details about his conversion from a promising grad student to a gunman capable of opening fire on hundreds of unsuspecting moviegoers at a “Batman” premiere.

The lead prosecutor displayed an image of the theater door on a TV screen as he told of a sinister but sane killer who methodically carried out the 2012 mass murder to make himself feel good and be remembered.

“Through this door is horror. Through this door are bullets, blood, brains and bodies. Through this door, one guy who thought as if he had lost his career, lost his love life, lost his purpose, came to execute a plan,” said District Attorney George Brauchler, standing before a scale model of the theater.

“He tried to murder a theater full of people to make himself feel better and because he thought it would increase his self-worth.”

Brauchler said two previously secret court-ordered psychiatric exams found Holmes to be sane.

Public Defender Daniel King countered that Holmes suffers from schizophrenia, a diagnosis confirmed by 20 doctors.

Jurors must decide whether Holmes was able to know right from wrong when he slipped into the theater, unleashed tear gas and killed 12 people and wounded 70. He’s charged with first-degree murder, attempted murder, an explosives offense and committing an act of violence for the mayhem he caused on July 20, 2012.

Holmes has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. His defense hopes jurors will agree and have him indefinitely committed to a mental institution. Under Colorado law, prosecutors must prove Holmes was sane in order to have him executed or spend the rest of his life in prison.

“Mental illness can sure sound like an excuse, but in this case, it’s not,” King said. “There will be no doubt in your minds that by the end of this trial, Mr. Holmes is severely mentally ill.”

Holmes sat quietly, harnessed to the floor by a cable that ran through his pants leg as the lawyers described his emotional rise and fall.

Defense attorneys said mental illness ran through both sides of Holmes’ family, including an aunt with schizophrenic affective disorder. Holmes attempted suicide at age 11, had “intrusive thoughts” in high school, and his mental illness “revved up” in his 20s, his attorney Katherine Spengler said. By grad school, his “psychosis bloomed,” King said.

By the months before the shootings, Holmes was the throes of psychosis, suffering delusions that took hold of his mind and commanded him to kill. He somehow thought slaughtering people would set things right, and was so sick afterward that he licked the wall of his jail cell, his defense said.

King and Spengler referred to the seemingly delusional rants in a journal Holmes mailed to his therapist just before the shootings as proof that he had lost his mind.

Brauchler pointed instead to emails Holmes sent his parents, where he seemed to communicate rationally and downplay his emotional decline.

All the while, Holmes was buying an arsenal of weapons, ammunition, tear gas, explosive chemicals, body armor and remote control detonators, and going to a remote shooting range to practice what he described to an ex-girlfriend as his “evil plan,” the prosecutor said.

Just a few hours into a trial expected to last four months, it became clear that prosecutors will try to prove Holmes had no excuse, and miss no opportunity to remind jurors of the lives he ended or ruined.

Holmes’ victims included two active-duty servicemen, a single mom, a man celebrating his 27th birthday, and an aspiring broadcaster who had survived a mall shooting in Toronto, and a 6-year-old girl whose pregnant mother lost her baby and was paralyzed.

“Boom!” Brauchler said as he showed pictures of the victims and the weapons Holmes used to kill them on a TV screen. “Boom!” he repeated, describing in detail how bullets pierced organs and destroyed limbs.

“Four-hundred people came into a boxlike theater to be entertained, and one person came to slaughter them,” the prosecutor said. Many more people would have died, but a magazine on his AR-15 assault rifle jammed, leaving 218 bullets unfired, Brauchler said.

Defense attorneys said there’s no need to spend months describing such horrors; they acknowledge Holmes was the killer. His state of mind is what’s in dispute.

To prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he was “NOT insane,” Judge Carlos A. Samour Jr., told the jury, the state must show he had “a culpable state of mind.” If Holmes acted with deliberation and intent — willfully taking actions that he knew would kill people — then even if he had mental problems, he should be found guilty of murder, the judge said.

Insanity defenses are successful in only 25 percent of felony trials nationally, even less so in homicides. Most mass shooters are killed by police, kill themselves or plead guilty. A review of 160 mass shootings found killers went to trial 74 times, and just three were found insane, according to Grant Duwe, a Minnesota corrections official who wrote the book “Mass Murder in the United States: A History.”

The defense hopes to add Holmes to that very short list.