Insane or not? Jurors to begin deliberations in Colorado theater massacre

Nearly three years after a troubled neuroscience student launched a massive military-style assault on a suburban Denver movie theater, jurors were to begin deliberations Wednesday on the fate of James E. Holmes and whether he was legally responsible for the carnage that left 12 people dead.

In Tuesday’s closing arguments, the prosecution and the defense both said Holmes had entered the theater in Aurora, Colo., during the midnight showing of the Batman movie “The Dark Knight Rises” and opened fire in the early morning of July 20, 2012. Seventy people were wounded — 58 in the hail of bullets and 12 in the frenzy to escape.

With the facts of the shooting not in dispute, jurors are being asked to wrestle with the deeper question of Holmes’ mental state and whether he could distinguish right from wrong.

Holmes has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. The prosecution has the burden of proving otherwise. If jurors conclude that Holmes was sane, he could face the death penalty.

The defense has repeatedly insisted that Holmes was not legally responsible under Colorado law. Defense lawyer Daniel King argued that Holmes was mentally ill for years and was controlled by schizophrenia.

“The mental illness caused this to happen. Only the mental illness caused this, and nothing else,” King said in his closing argument.

The prosecution argued that Holmes had demonstrated he was “mentally organized” by logically planning and rationally executing the attack.

King disagreed. “There isn’t a lot of logic in what Mr. Holmes did,” he said. “That’s because he is mentally ill. It’s not logical. It defies the logical process. It’s psychotic.”

But Arapahoe County Dist. Atty. George H. Brauchler said that Holmes met the legal test of knowing right from wrong.

“That guy was sane beyond a reasonable doubt, and he needs to be held accountable for what he did,” Brauchler told jurors in his closing argument.

The more than 400 moviegoers who entered the theater that night “came in hoping to see the story of a hero dressed in black, someone who would fight insurmountable odds for justice,” Brauchler said. “Instead, a different figure appeared by the screen.... He came there with one thing in his heart and his mind, and that was mass murder.

“When he goes into that theater, he intends to kill everybody he can,” the prosecutor said.

Brauchler said Holmes had deliberately and meticulously planned the attack to compensate for failures in his graduate school studies and in his social life. After the shooting, Holmes surrendered to police outside the theater.

“That is logical. That is rational, and that is anything but psychotic,” Brauchler said.

“He knows it's wrong,” Brauchler said at another point. “Wrong for him, wrong for society.”

King maintained that mental illness was to blame, not Holmes.

“When he stepped into that theater, the evidence is clear that he could not control his thoughts, that he could not control his actions, and that he could not control his perceptions,” King said.

In his finale, King beseeched the jurors: “I would ask you to do good, be strong, and do the right thing. He's not guilty by reason of insanity.”

Brauchler got the last word in the prosecution’s rebuttal. He argued that Holmes had demonstrated he knew the difference between right and wrong.

“We know what insanity is,” Brauchler said. “This isn’t it.”

Earlier Tuesday, closing arguments had been slightly delayed as the defense questioned some of the wording on slides the prosecution planned to use in its presentation.

Arapahoe County Judge Carlos Samour Jr. ordered Brauchler to change or delete some of the material, saying the wording misstated the evidence or made overbroad allegations.

Holmes is charged with 24 counts of murder and 140 counts of attempted murder — two counts for each person killed and two for each person injured. He also faces a weapons charge.

The trial began with opening statements on April 27.

Jurors heard from more than 250 witnesses, including several survivors and first responders still haunted by the bloody scene. Jurors viewed more than 24 hours of video and saw more than 1,500 photos, including images of the victims. They examined scores of evidence, including Holmes’ guns and ammunition. Holmes didn't testify.

The crucial evidence is expected to be the testimony from psychiatrists. All agree that Holmes was mentally ill, but two court-appointed psychiatrists testified that he was legally sane.

Two defense psychiatrists told jurors he was legally insane.

If Holmes is acquitted, he will be committed indefinitely to the state mental hospital.

If he is convicted, jurors will then decide his penalty: life in prison without parole or execution.

Twitter: @latimesmuskal


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8:22 p.m.: The story was updated throughout with new details.

3:42 p.m.: The story was updated throughout with details from the defense's closing argument.

1:37 p.m.: The story was updated throughout with details of the first hour of the closing argument by the prosecution.

The story was first published at 9:43 a.m.