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Judge Enters Not Guilty Plea For Colorado Movie Theater Shooter

Mar 12, 2013
Originally published on March 12, 2013 4:42 pm
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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.


I'm Melissa Block. And we begin this hour with a key courtroom moment in a high-profile, mass-shooting case. A Colorado judge entered a not guilty plea today on behalf of James Holmes. Holmes is the man accused of killing 12 people, and injuring 70 more, in a Colorado movie theater last summer. His attorneys have been considering an insanity defense but today, they said they still needed more time to advise their client. So that left the judge to keep the case moving forward.

Colorado Public Radio's Megan Verlee was at the courthouse this morning, and she joins me now. And Megan, we have the judge entering this not guilty plea for James Holmes. But he also, as I understand it, left the door open for the defense to change that plea in the future.

MEGAN VERLEE, BYLINE: That's right. It's a somewhat unusual move, but it solves a Catch-22 the defense has said they're in. They say their advice to Holmes about whether to make an insanity plea could change, depending on if prosecutors seek the death penalty. But normally, prosecutors don't have to announce that decision until 90 days after the arraignment.

So what the judge did today is allow the case to move forward, and the next step will be that death penalty announcement - and still give the defense a chance to give their client a full picture of what he faces.

BLOCK: So the next step - a decision by the district attorney about whether or not to seek the death penalty. How will they come to terms with that?

VERLEE: There's a hearing April 1st, where prosecutors have said that they will announce that. And it's interesting - this will come at a time when the death penalty will be very much in the headlines across Colorado. There are only three men on death row here right now. All of them were actually prosecuted in this district, and one of them has exhausted his last appeal and may soon face execution.

So that's going to be getting a lot of coverage. And there's a push right now in the state legislature to repeal the death penalty. So capital punishment may be very much on the minds of the public as prosecutors are trying to make this decision.

BLOCK: And once prosecutors announce whether or not they'll seek the death penalty, is that when we'll see a decision from James Holmes' attorneys about whether or not to plead not guilty by reason of insanity?

VERLEE: Probably not that day, but sometime after that. And that will trigger its own chain of events. The first is that he'll be ordered to undergo a psychological examination by the state. That's likely to be quite detailed. It could include a polygraph; also what's called a narcoanalytic interview. In that situation, Holmes would actually be given a so-called truth serum - sodium pentothal and amytal - to lower his inhibitions and get him to talk about his thinking around the time of the attack.

The other thing the insanity plea will do is make all of Holmes' psychological records available to the court. And that includes things that the defense has fought so far to keep secret; like what he may have said to a university psychologist, and what was in the notebook that he reportedly sent her right before the attack. So that plea will have a major and immediate impact on the direction of the case, once it's made.

BLOCK: Megan, I gather there were victims of the shooting at the hearing today. What was their reaction to what went on?

VERLEE: Well, victims and family members of the dead have attended every hearing so far. And afterward, I talked with Marcus Weaver, who was shot twice in the shoulder; and his friend Jessica Wingo was killed in the attack. He said he and other victims are really tired of delays in this case.

MARCUS WEAVER: When the defense teams stated that they weren't ready, you could hear just the shoulders dropping. People started crying. I mean, it's very emotional, you know, to hear that the person who murdered your family or, you know, shot your loved one has continued to get these chances, we feel.

VERLEE: So Weaver was really happy that the judge entered that not guilty plea, and actually set a trial date for the case. He feels like there's some momentum now.

BLOCK: And what is the trial date?

VERLEE: It's set for August 5th but honestly, with the death penalty decision and a possible insanity plea still to come, there's a lot ahead that could delay that. So I think the odds of an August trial start are actually very small.

BLOCK: OK. Megan Verlee with Colorado Public Radio. Megan, thank you.

VERLEE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.