Two and a half years to the day after James E. Holmes burst into a movie theater during a Batman premiere, killing 12 people and wounding 70 others in a bloody rampage, jury selection began in his trial Tuesday.
The first of thousands of possible jurors filed into Courtroom 201 of the Arapahoe County Justice Center, one and two at a time. They walked slowly and clutched sealed envelopes with 18 pages of secret questions designed to winnow their ranks.
If chosen, they will decide the fate of the man who tossed a tear gas canister and unleashed a barrage of gunfire in a packed Aurora, Colo., theater on July 20, 2012. Holmes has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity.
At the defense table, Holmes seemed to blend in with a sea of lawyers. Gone was his wild neon mop of dyed hair and glassy-eyed stare from early court appearances.
Also missing were the shackles, but a metal cable snaked from under his clothes. Deputies attached the cable to a hook under a table to tether him in place. The maroon jail garb was gone too. Defense attorneys had argued that visible restraints and jail attire could negatively influence the jury.
Although Holmes has not been disruptive during more than two years of court appearances, Judge Carlos Samour Jr. ordered the elaborate security measure because of the nature of the crime.
Holmes wore trimmed hair and a neat beard, along with horn-rimmed glasses, a gray sports coat, dress shirt and khaki slacks. Leaning back in his chair, he chatted and smiled with his defense team before the prospective jurors arrived.
The first ones included an elderly woman, men in blue jeans and a man with a Mohawk haircut. Holmes avoided looking at those who might decide his fate.
He faces 166 counts of first-degree murder, attempted murder and weapons charges in connection with the theater rampage and the booby-trapping of his apartment, which was rigged with explosives that could have killed anyone who entered.
Samour, who took over the case last year, set the mood as he welcomed roughly 150 potential jurors. He warned them not to discuss any aspect of the case with anyone, not even to reveal that they might be considered for the jury. He cautioned them not listen to or read any news reports about the case, not to do any of their own research, and not to visit any of the locations mentioned in the case.
“We realize what a sacrifice it is for you to put your life on hold,” Samour said.
A record 9,000 summonses were sent to seat a jury. That number has been reduced to about 7,000 because many of the notices could not be delivered. It could take five months to select a jury of 12 with 12 alternates.
Opening arguments might not come until early summer, and the trial could last through most of 2015. If Holmes, now 27, receives a death sentence, legal experts predict two decades of appeals.
The defense and prosecution will pore over the juror questionnaires to begin the tedious process of elimination. Samour urged the prosecution and the defense to be “reasonable and sensible” in excusing people.
Once the jury panel is reduced to about 120, those candidates will be called into court for individual questioning by the two sides. A round of group questioning will complete the process.
Legal analysts have predicted that jury selection could hold the key to the trial’s outcome since the defense has acknowledged that Holmes was the shooter. Both sides are expected to closely examine attitudes about mental illness.
His lawyers and his parents say Holmes suffers from severe mental illness. Under Colorado law, he cannot be put to death if the jury finds that he was too mentally ill to know right from wrong at the moment of the crime.
The prosecution, however, has painted him as a man who methodically planned the rampage and fully understood the consequences of his actions. A key point expected to be made at trial is that Holmes placed a personal ad before the massacre asking whether respondents would visit him in prison.
“Mr. Holmes is presumed innocent,” Samour reminded the potential jurors. He explained that the jury’s three possible findings will be guilty, not guilty, or not guilty by reason of insanity. The judge noted that in Colorado it is the prosecution’s burden to prove that Holmes was not insane at the moment of the crime.
While Samour addressed prospective jurors, prosecutors and defense attorneys appeared to be scanning the crowd. Later, they complained to the judge that three jurors were using their phones and another appeared to have fallen asleep. Those jurors were not excused. Seven others were — one who came at the wrong time, two who had doctor’s notes and four who had moved out of the county.
As of Tuesday, it had been 915 days since the theater massacre.
In July 2013, defense lawyers admitted in pretrial court filings that Holmes, a deeply troubled former neuroscience student at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, had pulled the trigger. They contend that he was “in the throes of a psychotic episode.”
Last month, his parents, Robert and Arlene Holmes, broke their silence to issue a statement expressing sympathy with the victims but also to say their son “is not a monster.” They pleaded for his life, saying, “He is a human being gripped by a severe mental illness.”