Correction Appended Jan. 7, 2012
The first day of preliminary hearings in the case of the Aurora, Colo. theater shooting was an emotional one, as police officers testified about what they saw when responding to the scene of the bloody July 20 rampage that killed 12 people and injured 58. And it’s likely just the beginning of several days of similar testimony.
Prosecutors and defense attorneys are presenting evidence in a Centennial, Colo., courtroom in case of James Eagan Holmes, 24, who was charged in July with 142 counts of murder and attempted murder after he opened fire at a July 20 midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises. At the conclusion of the hearing he is expected to find out if he will stand trial for his actions.
Arapahoe County judge William Sylvester will decide whether the 24-year-old former neuroscience student is mentally competent to stand trial. Early in the day’s testimony, Holmes was described as “out of it” by the officer who found him after the shooting, according to reports from The Denver Post.
“He was very relaxed,” said Aurora Police Officer Jason Oviatt, who along with other officers found Holmes in the parking lot of the Cinemark Century 16 megaplex theater wearing two ammunition magazines and body armor. “It was like there weren’t normal responses.”
Later, Officer James Grizzle described the bloody scene came across when he moved inside the theater. “I slipped. I almost fell down because of all the blood there.” He said he took people to the hospital in the back of his patrol car rather than waiting on an ambulance at least three times and described in graphic detail what it was like.
“There was so much blood I could hear it sloshing in the back of my car,” he told the court
Holmes entered the movie theater just after the beginning of a screening of the film, armed with an AR-15, rifle, a 12-gauge shotgun, and a .40 caliber pistol, and opened fire on moviegoers, killing 12 and injuring 58. He surrendered to police without a struggle after the shooting. In a subsequent search of his nearby apartment, police found that he had booby-trapped it with explosives, which were later dismantled by investigators.
Other evidence presented at the hearing included security video of “dozens” of people running from the theater into the lobby to escape the gunfire and of Holmes walking into the theater before the shooting began. He had purchased a ticket for the showing 12 days in advance.
Oviatt said Holmes was “just standing there” not moving much at all, and seemed unconcerned when officers arrived on the scene. “Not in any hurry. Not excited. Not urgent about anything.”
The gunman was initially charged with 142 counts of murder and attempted murder, but prosecutors later added 24 additional counts for a total of 166. During early motions in the case prosecutors and defense lawyers debated over several types of evidence, much of it to do with Holmes’ mental state prior to the shooting. Holmes had attended the University of Colorado and was studying for his Ph.D in neuroscience, but dropped out in June after taking his oral exams. His lawyers said that he was also seeing a psychiatrist at the school, Dr. Lynne Fenton. According to local news reports, Fenton, concerned at Holmes’ erratic behavior, had alerted school officials that he could pose a threat to others.
After Holmes dropped out, however, the university’s Behavioral Evaluation and Threat Assessment Team — which Fenton helped develop — had no authority to respond to his behavior. The day he dropped out, he legally purchased the AR-15 semiautomatic and other weapons.
Prosecutors have not disclosed whether they plan to pursue the death penalty against Holmes, if he’s found competent to stand trial; Arapahoe County District Attorney Carol Chambers, however, said that the feelings of the shooting survivors and victims’ families would need to be taken into account first. “Victims will be impacted by that decision in an enormous way for years, if the death penalty is sought,” she said. “We will want to get their input before we make any kind of a decision on that.”
An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the movie playing at the Aurora theater during the shooting as The Dark Knight Returns.