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Colorado judge allows James Holmes to move toward insanity defense

<i>This post has been corrected, as indicated below</i>

CENTENNIAL, Colo. -- The judge in the Aurora movie theater massacre case paved the way Monday for James E. Holmes to plead not guilty by reason of insanity but did not formally accept that plea, delaying that decision until later this month.

Judge Carlos Samour Jr. of Colorado’s 18th Judicial District, ruled that the defense had made its case that the plea should be changed from a traditional not guilty plea to an insanity plea. He said his decision was “consistent with fairness and justice” for Holmes.

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In March, Chief District Judge William Sylvester, who has since stepped aside in the case, entered a not guilty plea on Holmes’ behalf because the defense said it was not prepared to “intelligently and effectively” advise its clients on how to plea.

PHOTOS: Colorado theater shooting

Under Colorado law a plea can be changed to not guilty by reason of insanity if there is a compelling reason.

Public Defender Daniel King revealed for the first time Monday that the defense has a diagnosis and “qualified opinion” on Holmes’ mental state. “We now have a diagnosis that is complete,” King said.

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He did not disclose what the diagnosis was, when it was rendered or by whom.

The prosecution questioned the defense contention that it only now is able to render an insanity plea.

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“When did the diagnosis come about?” asked Deputy Dist. Atty. Jacob Edson. He said his office polled victims in the deadly shooting and 19 objected to the change of plea. Three victims had no opinion and another six did not object to the plea change.

Holmes, 25, is accused of opening fire in a packed movie theater on July 20, killing 12 and injuring 70. He faces the death penalty if convicted.

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TIMELINE: Deadliest mass shootings in the U.S.

But by law a person found to be insane or suffer from a mental defect cannot be put to death. The defense has long said Holmes is deeply mentally ill.

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Holmes, as in previous hearings, appeared in court shackled and sat quietly, mostly staring straight ahead. He did not appear to make eye contact with his mother, Arlene Holmes, who sat in the audience.

Samour said he was “persuaded and satisfied” that the defense had shown cause to change the plea and that its actions had not unnecessarily delayed the proceedings. That was the issue before the judge Monday -- next is whether to accept the plea.

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If the judge accepts the plea change, a hearing will be held to make sure Holmes is fully advised and understands the consequences of pleading not guilty by reason of insanity. A trial is scheduled for February 2014 but most legal experts say the combination of an insanity plea and the death penalty will probably delay it for months, if not years.

[For the record: 3:39 p.m., May 13: An earlier version of this post said a judge had paved the way for James E. Holmes to plead guilty by reason of insanity. Holmes is seeking permission to plead not guilty by reason of insanity.]

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