Holmes jury keeps execution as option as sentencing advances

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James Holmes, who is charged with killing 12 moviegoers and wounding 70 more in a shooting spree in a crowded theatre in 2012, sits in Arapahoe County District Court in Centennial, Colo. Jurors in the Colorado theater shooting trial reached a decision Monday, Aug. 3, 2015, on whether to keep the death penalty as an option for Holmes. The jury deliberated for less than three hours, starting Thursday after Holmes' parents made an emotional plea for their son's life because he is mentally ill. (RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post via AP, Pool, File)
James Holmes, who is charged with killing 12 moviegoers and wounding 70 more in a shooting spree in a crowded theatre in 2012, sits in Arapahoe County District Court in Centennial, Colo. Jurors in the Colorado theater shooting trial reached a decision Monday, Aug. 3, 2015, on whether to keep the death penalty as an option for Holmes. (RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post via AP, Pool, File)

CENTENNIAL, Colo. — Jurors declined to rule out death for James Holmes on Monday as they moved toward sentencing the Colorado theater shooter.

The decision clears the way for one last attempt from both sides to sway the jury, with gripping testimony from victims about their harm and suffering, as well as more appeals for mercy for the man convicted of murdering 12 people and trying to kill 70 more.

Holmes, his reactions dulled by anti-psychotic drugs, stood as ordered and appeared emotionless as the judge read the decisions.

Holmes’ parents Robert and Arlene Holmes, held hands, their fingers interlaced, and held their eyes on the floor while Judge Carlos Samour, Jr., read the verdicts. With each unanimous “yes,” it became ever more clear that jurors did not believe their testimony outweighed their son’s crimes. Arlene Holmes began to cry. Robert held a box of tissues for her.

There were more tears elsewhere in the courtroom. Rena Medek began silently sobbing when the judge read the name of her 23-year-old daughter Micayla. Ian Sullivan, the father of Holmes’ youngest victim, 6-year-old Veronica Moser-Sullivan, closed his eyes when her name was read. Veronica’s grandfather, Robert Sullivan, glared at Holmes and nodded his head softly.

“We are one step closer,” said Joshua Nowlan outside court.

During the trial, Nowlan used the cane he has to walk with now as a prop, to show how Holmes used an assault rifle to spray gunfire at him and others in the audience. He said he’s “very happy with the results.”

The jury was sent home and told to return Tuesday morning for the final phase. Then, the nine women and three men will finally decide whether the 27-year-old should receive a lethal injection or spend life in prison without parole.

The same jury rejected the defense claim that mental illness so warped his mind that Holmes could not tell right from wrong when he carried out the theater attack in the Denver suburb of Aurora on July 20, 2012.

In the first step of Colorado’s complicated death sentencing process, prosecutors then argued, and jurors agreed, that capital punishment could be appropriate because Holmes sprang a terrifying and cruel ambush on hundreds of unsuspecting victims.

In the second step, defense lawyers argued that mental illness nevertheless reduced Holmes’ “moral culpability” and that his personal history made him worthy of mercy. They said it was schizophrenia, not free will, that drove Holmes to murder. They called his former teachers, friends, sister and parents, who said “Jimmy” had been a friendly child who withdrew socially as he grew older.

Robert and Arlene Holmes testified that they never suspected their son was mentally ill. But Robert Holmes acknowledged that they rarely communicated in the months before the theater attack and that in his family, emotions just weren’t talked about, even though his own father and sister had been hospitalized with mental illness.

“He was not a violent person. At least not until the event,” Robert Holmes said, referring to the theater attack.

Jurors deliberated for less than three hours before announcing that his mental problems and the appealing portrait of a younger, kinder man did not outweigh the horrors of the calculated attack on defenseless moviegoers that Holmes waged as a graduate student.

Each of the 12 murders was charged twice — as “murder after deliberation” and “murder after extreme indifference” — and on all 24 counts, they decided that “mitigating factors” did not outweigh “aggravating factors.”

Holmes had been a promising scholar in a demanding neuroscience PhD. program at the University of Colorado until his life went awry amid the pressures of laboratory work. He broke up with his first and only girlfriend and dropped out of school, abandoning his longtime goal of becoming a scientist. He obtained prescription anti-anxiety and anti-depressant medicine by seeing a campus psychiatrist but hid the depth of his turmoil from everyone, describing it instead in a secret journal.

That eerie notebook — which Holmes mailed to the psychiatrist hours before opening fire in the theater — became key evidence. In it, Holmes diagnosed himself with a litany of mental problems and methodically laid out his plans to kill. He wrote that he tried to fix his own brain and failed.

Shortly after midnight, he slipped into the premiere of a Batman movie, stood before the capacity crowd of more than 400 people, threw gas canisters, and then opened fire, with a shotgun, assault rifle and semi-automatic pistol before surrendering meekly to police outside.

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