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Gunman found guilty of Colo. theater massacre

Jurors reject insanity defense; penalty phase may last weeks

James Holmes in 2012. The Denver Post/Pool/AP/File

CENTENNIAL, Colo. — Inside Courtroom 201, the families of the dead and wounded watched in taut silence Thursday afternoon as the judge shuffled through a stack of verdict forms containing the fate of James Holmes, the gunman who three years ago slipped into a Colorado movie theater and opened fire on their sons and daughters, friends, and loved ones.

As the judge began reading the verdicts — guilty, guilty, guilty — repeated 165 times over an entire hour, for each count of murder and attempted murder, the families sobbed quietly, clutched one another’s shoulders, and nodded along to a recitation of guilt that many had been waiting nearly three years to hear.


Sandy Phillips wrapped herself tightly in the green scarf that her slain daughter, Jessica Ghawi, had loved. A father who lost his son patted the arm of Joshua Nowlan, who was wounded and now walks with a cane.

As each name of the 12 people killed and 70 wounded was read, and read again — prosecutors filed two charges per victim — the families looked to the corner of the public gallery and gave one another a quiet nod or an arm squeeze.

After an emotional 11-week trial, one of the longest and most complex in the state’s history, it took a jury of nine women and three men about 13 hours of deliberation over two days to convict Holmes on all counts. He now faces a lengthy sentencing process in which prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.

The jury’s verdict roundly rejected arguments from his defense lawyers that he had had a psychotic break and was legally insane when he carried out the massacre inside the Century 16 theater in suburban Aurora on July 20, 2012. His lawyers argued he was not in control of his thoughts or actions, but prosecutors said Holmes, despite being mentally ill, had plotted out the shootings with meticulous calculation and knew what he wanted to accomplish when he started firing into the crowd.


As Judge Carlos Samour Jr. read the 165 counts against Holmes, the defendant stood silently between his lawyers, staring straight ahead, with his hands tucked into the pockets of a pair of khaki-colored pants. He did not glance at his parents sitting two rows behind. When the hourlong recitation of the verdicts was done, he sat down and lightly swiveled in his chair.

Coming within days of the Aurora shooting’s third anniversary, the guilty verdict ends one phase of a grueling legal saga, but another one is now set to begin.

As the district attorney in suburban Arapahoe County argues for the death penalty, the jury will begin weighing the toll and nature of Holmes’ actions to decide whether to send him to prison for life or to Colorado’s death row.

The sentencing phase is expected to take weeks. It could feature more wrenching statements from survivors and families of the victims, as well as testimony from defense witnesses who would discuss the role that mental illness played in propelling Holmes toward the movie theater that night.

The district attorney, George Brauchler, has said that for Holmes, “justice is death.”

Prosecutors argued that Holmes plotted the shootings for several weeks, deliberately and meticulously, because he had lost his first and only girlfriend, had dropped out of his graduate program and had generally lost his purpose in life.


To that end, prosecutors brought in professors and classmates who described Holmes’s struggles as a first-year graduate student in the neuroscience program at the Anschutz Medical Campus of the University of Colorado. Holmes quit the program in June 2012, after he failed important oral exams and declined the chance to retake them.

Prosecutors showcased pages from a spiral notebook in which Holmes inscribed murderous fantasies and nonsensical theories about life and death, and where he plotted what kind of attack to carry out, and how and where to do it.

But where prosecutors saw calculation, the defense saw “a whole lot of crazy.”

Two psychiatrists who testified for the defense said Holmes lacked the ability to tell right from wrong or act with intent — critical elements of sanity under Colorado law.

Their testimony clashed with two court-appointed psychiatrists who said that although Holmes suffered a severe mental illness on a spectrum with schizophrenia, he was not legally insane when he walked into the theater.