CENTENNIAL, Colo. (Reuters) - A former graduate student charged with shooting a dozen people to death last July at a screening of a “Batman” film in Colorado returned to court on Monday as prosecutors set out to convince a judge they have enough evidence to put him on trial.
The preliminary hearing in the case against James Holmes, 25, is expected to last a week and offer the public its first detailed glimpse into an investigation of one of the most chilling and deadly mass shootings in U.S. history.
The onetime University of Colorado doctoral student of neuroscience is charged with multiple counts of first-degree murder and attempted murder stemming from a rampage that killed 12 people and left 58 wounded inside an Aurora, Colorado, movie theater.
The Denver suburb was shaken by gun violence again on Saturday when a lone gunman holed up in an Aurora townhouse shot dead three people and was killed hours later by police.
A wave of fatal shooting rampages across the country over the past year, led by the movie-house slayings in Colorado and last month’s massacre of 20 children and six adults at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, have reignited a national debate over gun safety.
Most of the evidence against Holmes has been placed under seal, and Arapahoe County District Judge William Sylvester has issued a gag order preventing all parties, including law enforcement, from publicly discussing the case.
The preliminary hearing allows prosecutors to present evidence in open court for the judge to then rule whether there is sufficient cause to order the case to continue to trial.
Assuming the case proceeds, Holmes would enter a formal plea. If he pleads not guilty, prosecutors have 60 days to decide whether to seek the death penalty.
For defense lawyers, this week’s proceedings will afford a sharper picture of the prosecution’s case. And Holmes’ lawyers plan to call witnesses to testify about his state of mind, a move that further portends the makings of an insanity defense.
Glimmers of such a defense strategy have emerged in hearings leading up to Monday’s proceeding, including comments from Holmes’ lawyers suggesting he was mentally disturbed and had seen a psychiatrist.
‘VERY DETACHED FROM IT ALL’
Monday’s hearing opened with testimony from two of the first Aurora police officers who described the pandemonium they encountered as they arrived at the scene of the shooting.
Officer Jason Oviatt recounted seeing “a trail of blood that led to the theater” as he first confronted Holmes, who was wearing a helmet and gas mask and “immediately put his hands up” when ordered to freeze and surrender.
He said Holmes said nothing and offered no resistance as he was handcuffed and taken into custody. Asked about Holmes’ demeanor under cross-examination from defense lawyers, Oviatt said the suspect “seemed very detached from it all.”
A second officer, Aaron Blue, recalled arriving on the scene to find “a lot of people coming out of the theater screaming,” and testified about how he and his partner transported one woman to the hospital as he sat in the back seat cradling her head.
Holmes, shackled and wearing a crimson jumpsuit, sat impassively at the defense table, showing no visible emotion or reaction to the testimony.
Gone was the dyed red hair that the California native sported when he was taken into custody. His natural dark brown hair has since grown back, and he appeared in court as he has in recent weeks with a full beard.
Until last month’s Newtown tragedy, the Aurora multiplex massacre ranked as the bloodiest U.S. shooting of 2012, one of the nation’s worst years for gun violence in recent memory. Yet the circumstances of the movie killings stood out as a particularly shocking.
At an earlier hearing in the case, prosecutor Rich Orman said Holmes bought a ticket to the July 20 midnight screening of the Batman film “The Dark Knight Rises”, and minutes into the movie left the theater, propping open an exit door.
Holmes then donned protective ballistic gear and armed himself with numerous weapons, returned to the theater, lobbed a smoke canister into the crowd and opened fire, authorities said.
Officer Blue testified on Monday that just after Holmes surrendered to police at the theater, he blurted out that he also had booby-trapped his home with what Holmes called “improvised explosive devices.”
Bomb squad technicians sent to the suspect’s home managed to disarm homemade bombs without any of them detonating. (Reporting and writing by Keith Coffman and Steve Gorman; Editing by John Wallace and Grant McCool)