Delay in plea by Holmes disturbs victims, families
CENTENNIAL — A stunned silence settled over a courtroom Friday after the father of a woman killed in the Colorado theater shootings loudly cursed defendant James Holmes, prompting a sympathetic but firm warning from a judge.
Steve Hernandez, whose 32-year-old daughter Rebecca Wingo was among the dead, shouted, “Rot in hell, Holmes!” moments after Judge William Sylvester gave Holmes two months to enter a plea.
The outburst capped an emotional week of often gruesome testimony about the July 20 shootings and came as the nation debates gun control and struggles to find ways to stop mass shootings.
In Washington, Vice President Joe Biden met with the father of one of the Aurora victims as part of a push for gun control by the White House.
In Denver, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper has called for new measures to keep guns away from mentally ill and dangerous people.
Despite the procedural wrangling in the theater shooting case, there may be few options for Holmes. If, as many anticipate, he enters a not guilty by insanity plea, he would undergo lengthy evaluations at a state mental hospital before trial.
If the case goes to trial and he’s found not guilty by reason of insanity, Holmes could conceivably be released from a mental hospital someday if he is deemed to have recovered, but that is considered an unlikely possibility.
A guilty plea or conviction could mean life in prison or the death penalty.
Holmes, 25, was ordered late Thursday to stand trial on charges of murder and attempted murder after 2½ days of testimony from police and federal agents who provided excruciating details about the attack.
Sylvester called Holmes back to court on Friday for an arraignment hearing to enter a plea, but defense attorneys requested the delay, saying they would not be ready to do that until March.
That prompted a murmur of disbelief among about 40 survivors and family members of the victims in the gallery.
Sylvester granted the delay, saying he wanted to avoid giving the defense any opening to later appeal the case. Immediately after Sylvester adjourned the hearing, Hernandez shouted at Holmes. Deputies took Hernandez aside and Sylvester reconvened the proceedings.
“I’m terribly sorry for your loss and I can only begin to imagine the emotions that are raging,” Sylvester told Hernandez, saying he could watch the proceedings by video if he could not contain himself.
Hernandez apologized and promised to remain silent at future hearings.
Sylvester then addressed other onlookers in the courtroom.
“I really, really do not want to have any outbursts,” he said.
Holmes is charged with 166 felony counts, mostly murder and attempted murder, in the killing of 12 people and injuring of 70 others during a midnight showing of “The Dark Knight Rises” in the Denver suburb of Aurora.
Defense attorneys did not give a reason for requesting the delay in entering a plea, but prosecutors suggested to Sylvester that his lawyers might want time to build an insanity defense.
The case now moves to a new phase dealing less with the bloody details of the shooting and more about what went on inside Holmes’ head. His attorneys have said he has a mental illness, and it is widely expected they will argue he is not guilty by reason of insanity.
“Insanity is what this case is going to turn on,” said Denver criminal defense attorney Dan Recht, who is not involved in the case. “This is not a whodunit.”
Before the shooting, Holmes was seeing a psychiatrist at the University of Colorado, Denver, where he was a first-year neuroscience graduate student. The psychiatrist became alarmed, but Holmes left the graduate program shortly after failing a year-end exam in June. Holmes was apparently never contacted by law enforcement.
During the preliminary hearing, witnesses testified that Holmes spent weeks amassing an arsenal and planning the attack, and that he took photos of himself hours before the shooting, including one that showed him grinning with a handgun.
They also detailed an elaborate booby trap set up at Holmes’ apartment designed to explode at the same time the theater attack occurred several miles away.
Prosecution witnesses testified that Holmes began acquiring weapons in early May, and by July 6 he had two semi-automatic pistols, a shotgun, a semi-automatic rifle, 6,200 rounds of ammunition and high-capacity magazines that allow a shooter to fire more rounds without stopping to reload.
Defense lawyers didn’t call any witnesses during the hearing.
The delay of the arraignment signals the possibility of more postponements in the case, particularly given the questions about the mental health of Holmes.
Either side in the case could contend that Holmes is not mentally competent to stand trial. If he were found incompetent, the case would come to a halt while he receives psychiatric treatment at the state mental hospital. He would remain there until doctors can restore him to competency, at which point the case would continue.
Once the judge rules Holmes is competent — either immediately after a competency hearing or after psychiatric treatment — and any other delays are resolved, Holmes would then enter a plea.
That happened with Jared Loughner in the Tucson, Ariz., shooting that killed six people and wounded 13, including then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. A federal judge ruled Loughner was incompetent to stand trial. After more than a year in treatment, Loughner was ruled competent, the case proceeded, and he entered guilty pleas. He is serving life in prison.
Another possibility could involve Holmes pleading not guilty by reason of insanity. In that scenario, future legal maneuvering and a trial would pivot on his mental state. If found not guilty by reason of insanity, Holmes would be committed to the state mental hospital for treatment. His case would be reviewed every six months, and he conceivably could be released if he ever is deemed no longer insane.
In any case, victims are bracing for a lengthy process.
“It’s going to be a lot of waiting, but justice is going to be served,” said Yousef Gharbi, 17, who spent 35 days in a hospital after being grazed in the head during the massacre.