The techno music coursing through his earbuds was cranked up to full volume. The latest Batman movie blared from the screen. He shot round after round into the packed theater, as hundreds of spectators shrieked in terror. An alarm blasted.
And when James E. Holmes was done firing, after an outburst of violence months in the making, a single image stuck in his mind.
“This one guy in the front row was smiling,” Holmes said via video Tuesday, his flat, emotionless voice filling the darkened courtroom. “I thought it was kind of odd he was smiling. This was when I was going to leave, going toward the exit. I looked back and saw he was smiling.... He was alive and moving a little bit.”
Jurors are watching 22 hours of conversations recorded last July between Holmes and Dr. William Reid, one of two court-appointed psychiatrists who evaluated the gunman after he pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity in the July 20, 2012, massacre at the Century 16 complex in Aurora, Colo.
Prodded by Reid, Holmes said he guessed the man was probably “nervous or anxious.”
For the first month of Holmes’ trial on 166 charges, the focus was solidly on the eight men, three women and one little girl the failed neuroscience student killed and the 70 others he wounded during a midnight screening of “The Dark Knight Rises.”
But the prosecution is showing the interviews in their entirety — just days after releasing Holmes’ private journal — allowing jurors to peer into the shooter’s mind, learn how he thinks, listen to responses that sounded detached, cold.
On Tuesday, Holmes described in halting terms what happened inside Theater 9 with its stadium seating, as Reid pushed him to remember what he had done and how he had felt. It was the first time anyone other than lawyers and psychiatrists had heard his version of events.
In Division 201 of the Arapahoe County Justice Center, jurors watched images of Holmes in prison blues projected on a flat screen above the 27-year-old defendant. Both Holmes in the courtroom and Holmes on the screen stared straight ahead. Both were nearly motionless. One was silent. The other responded in monosyllables, sentence fragments, an occasional long thought.
Although he has pleaded not guilty, Holmes does not dispute the fact that he carried out the massacre. His planning, he told Reid, was “meticulous,” his mental illness a 15-year path.
Listening to the interviews, jurors learned that Holmes favored silky sheets in red and black. He had a single houseplant of unknown genus in his 800-square-foot apartment near the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus; he watered it daily, named it “Planty.” He favored male-centric sitcoms like “The Big Bang Theory.”
“Of Mice and Men” was his favorite John Steinbeck novel, he told Reid during their lengthy sessions. And he identified with Lennie, the tragic protagonist with the mind of a child in the body of a giant, a man who killed without meaning to.
“Lennie accidentally killed a person, I don’t remember who. They were out to get him,” Holmes told Reid. “I think he was schizophrenic.... He was the most interesting character in the book.”
Although Holmes described himself as schizophrenic, that’s about where the perceived similarities end.
He wanted to kill “as many people as possible,” he said, but he also wanted to protect himself in the process. He “chose mass murder over doing something like a serial killing,” he said, “because it was impersonal, it was something I could actually do.”
In the days before the rampage, Holmes bought three movie tickets online, but none were for the auditorium he had carefully cased out. He found out, however, that it didn’t matter. Once he got into the multiplex, no one kept him from his target: Theater 9.
“I just went to the very front and sat down in one of the chairs and pulled out my phone to make it look like I had a phone call and then went out the [emergency] exit,” he told Reid. “I looked back in the stands and saw they were all full.”
He propped the exit door open so he could get back in with his weapons.
Before leaving his booby-trapped apartment late on July 19, 2012, Holmes loaded the magazines for his four weapons and pulled on a pair of ballistic pants. Inside his cramped Hyundai Tiburon sitting in the theater parking lot, he said, he quickly put on the rest of his gear.
“Then an employee came out to the dumpster and threw something away,” Holmes said. “But I had tinted the windows and they didn’t see me. I heard them.”
He worried, he told Reid, about whether “they’re going to interrupt the process or not. But they didn’t. They just went back inside the theater after throwing the trash away.”
Reid: “What if they had?”
Holmes: “I had a handgun.”
Reid: “Were you prepared to do that if necessary?”
Reid asked whether Holmes had any other thoughts as he prepared to reenter the theater and carry out his “mission,” whether his heart was pumping, his adrenaline racing.
“Calm and collected,” Holmes replied.
His AR-15 assault weapon was slung across his chest. He had a Glock handgun tucked in his belt, spare magazines in pouches, a shotgun at the ready. He dropped one tear-gas canister and it rolled away, but he had a spare.
“First, I open the tear-gas canister while I’m still outside the door,” he said. “It made a hissing sound. I went inside and tossed it over to the right side of the theater.... I could see people trying to leave and sitting down under their seats.”
He raised his shotgun. He began shooting. He heard a scream.
When he was finished, he said, he thought he had killed three people and wounded 20.
He had underestimated.
And just who were those people? A means to an end, he told Reid, who has treated thousands of patients and testified in 60 to 70 trials in 20 states. The victims were “numbers,” Holmes said, “a conglomerate mass,” barely human beings in their own right.
“I knew it was legally wrong,” he said. “You get punished for killing people.” But they were “not real people. It was just kind of amorphous people who were going to get hurt.... I didn’t look at them. I didn’t, like, single them out as individuals.”
In fact, he said, he could barely see them through the scratched protective lens of his cumbersome gas mask as he shot randomly into the auditorium. He wanted it that way, he told Reid.
Holmes didn’t know whom he had killed, and he did not care, he said.
Their deaths, he said early on in the interview process, had a simple purpose: to increase his self worth and make him feel better.
The way Holmes saw it, “if you take away a life, it adds to your own value.... Anything they would have done or, like, pursued, gets canceled out and given to me.” It’s a calculation, he said, that comes from economics.
There was one thing more.
“Doing the homicide got me out of depression,” he told Reid. “It gave a purpose.... The alternative was suicide.”