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Colorado Theater Shooter Avoids Death Penalty, Sentenced to Life in Prison

James Holmes will be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole after jurors rejected the death penalty in the July 20, 2012, Aurora, Colo., movie theater attack that killed 12 moviegoers and injured 70 others during a screening of “The Dark Knight Rises.”

Holmes, wearing glasses and a gray button-down shirt, stood expressionless with his hands in his pockets as Judge Carlos Samour read the jury’s decision. The jury said that they were unable to come to a unanimous verdict on whether to impose the penalty, meaning that he would receive a life sentence without parole.

Samour will formally sentence Holmes at a hearing, scheduled for Aug. 24 through Aug. 26. Defense attorneys had argued that Holmes was mentally ill.

The jury of nine women and three men deliberated late on Thursday and on Friday morning and early afternoon on the decision on whether to impose the death penalty. One juror told Denver station KDVR-TV that one juror was solidly against the death penalty and two were on the fence.

“Every one of us just felt devastated for the victims’ families,” she said.

As the verdicts were read, defense attorneys could be seen wiping away tears and holding head in hands. But reporters in the courtroom said that a family member of one of the victims abruptly left the courtroom. Other family members could be heard sobbing.

“May justice be done,” said a statement from the Colorado State Patrol. “We remember the victims (more than just those pictures) and will speak of ‘him’ no more.”

Speaking to the media outside the courthouse, some family members of the victims expressed dismay at the jury’s sentence.

“We always knew this was a possibility,” said Robert Sullivan, grandfather of 6-year-old victim Veronica Moser-Sullivan,  according to The Denver Post. “I’m thinking a dark knight rises and infiltrates the jurors.”

“I am not really surprised. We kind of thought that was how it going to end up,” Eugene Han, who was injured in the theater along with his wife, Kirstin, told Denver station KDVR-TV. He said he did not have an opinion either way on whether to impose the death penalty.

After reading out the names of the victims, George Brauchler, district attorney for Arapahoe County and prosecutor in the case, said at a press conference that he was disappointed by the decision but did not criticize the jury. He said they did “a hell of a job” in the trial, which ran over four months.

“I still think death is justice for what that guy did, but the system said otherwise,” he said.

He said he had “already apologized to the victims,” but he was anxious to hear from the jurors, suggesting it may have come down to a matter of conscience.

He challenged defense arguments that Holmes was “long-term suicidal,” saying they failed to present such evidence.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt [Holmes] got what he wanted,” Brauchler said.

Jordan Ghawi, whose sister Jessica was one of the victims, wrote on Twitter, “Thank you jurors for letting reason and not emotion guide you in your decision.”

He added, “3 years of anguish and $5 million for a verdict that the defense had already agreed to.”

Their decision came as somewhat of a surprise. Jurors earlier in the day had requested to view graphic video of the theater crime scene, and Samour let them. They announced that they had reached a verdict about two hours later.

After finding Holmes guilty of all 165 counts, the jury then turned to sentencing, a three-part process in which they first decided that his crimes contained “aggravating factors” to warrant the death penalty, and then determined that “mitigating factors” from Holmes’ life do not outweigh the heinous nature of the crimes.

But Colorado juries have imposed the death penalty sparingly since it was reinstated 40 years ago. Only one person, convicted murders and rapist Gary Lee Davis in 1997, has been executed since then.

Earlier this week, families of victims were given the opportunity to testify before the court on the impact that the loss of their loved ones had on their lives.

Brauchler said in his closing arguments that for Holmes, “justice is death.”

In the earlier phase of sentencing, Holmes’ mother, Arlene, argued that her son suffered from mental illness that they were unaware of until after the shootings.

“He has a serious mental illness,” she told the court. “He didn’t ask for that. Schizophrenia chose him. He didn’t choose it, and I still love my son.”

Holmes pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity, meaning that much of the trial focused on his mental capacity during the rampage and on his behavior in the months before and afterward. His attorneys argued that he could not control his thoughts, actions and perceptions when he walked into the theater that evening. The jury rejected that defense.

During the trial, prosecutors described how Holmes planned the attack and booby trapped his apartment with explosives. They described how Holmes, dressed in gas mask, ballistic helmet and vest and other protective gear as if he were a SWAT team member, set off tear gas and carried out his rampage to inflict massive casualties.

Several of those injured still have civil litigation pending against Cinemark Theaters, claiming that the multiplex failed to provide adequate security measures.

As jurors heard the case, there were two more theater shootings — in Lafayette, La., and this week in Nashville, Tenn. In his press conference, Brauchler said both incidents differed greatly from the Aurora shooting because of the planning that went in to Holmes’ attack at the Aurora theater.

Gov. John Hickenlooper (D-Colo.) wrote on Twitter, “Our thoughts remain with the victims & families who have suffered unspeakable tragedy. No verdict can bring back what they lost.”

 

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