Colorado shooting case judge weighs transparency, privacy issues

Judge William Sylvester OKs 13 new charges against movie theater shooting suspect James E. Holmes. He will rule on whether victims' names should be resealed.

October 12, 2012|By Jenny Deam, Los Angeles Times | This post has been corrected, as indicated below.
  • James E. Holmes now faces a total of 166 charges in the Aurora, Colo., movie theater massacre on July 20.
James E. Holmes now faces a total of 166 charges in the Aurora, Colo., movie… (Arapahoe County Sheriff's…)

CENTENNIAL, Colo. — As 13 new attempted murder charges were filed against mass shooting suspect James E. Holmes on Thursday, the judge weighed judicial transparency against the privacy and potential safety of victims in the closely watched case.

Holmes, who attended the hearing, now faces a total of 166 charges in the Aurora movie theater massacre in the early-morning hours of July 20. The former neuroscience doctoral student at the University of Colorado Denver is accused of opening fire during a packed premiere of "The Dark Knight Rises," killing 12 and wounding at least 58.

Chief Judge William Sylvester of the 18th Judicial District granted the prosecution's request to add the charges. Prosecutors have said they are still gathering names of those injured in the chaotic rampage.

The preliminary hearing for Holmes, 24, is expected to be rescheduled from November to January, at the defense's request.

Public defender Daniel King told Sylvester that his team has not yet begun to explore "the nature and depth of Mr. Holmes' mental illness." King has referred to Holmes' mental illness previously in court.

In a rare moment of solidarity Thursday, the defense and prosecution both criticized press coverage and a media lawyer who argued that the names of the dead and most of the wounded should remain open in court records.

Late last month, Sylvester granted a motion by Denver media lawyer Steven Zansberg to open 57 previously sealed court files that included the names. The prosecution asked that the names be resealed to prevent further harm to those who have suffered so much already.

Lisa Teesch-Maguire, who is working with the prosecution on behalf of victims, argued that victims, their families and potential witnesses have been harassed by the media and feel intimidated by a group of Holmes' followers who have launched a campaign insisting that he is innocent. They call themselves "Holmsies."

In one incident, the prosecution said, a shooting victim's identity was stolen and fraudulently used to file a court motion declaring that he had not been shot and wanted to be removed from the witness list.

"They are afraid to go in their backyards" because news helicopters fly over and take pictures of their children, said Teesch-Maguire, former legal director of the Rocky Mountain Victim Law Center.

She added that Dr. Lynne Fenton, the University of Colorado psychiatrist who treated Holmes, had to move out of her house because of the publicity.

King, the defense attorney, told the judge that Zansberg and the media were using victims as "cannon fodder."

Jessica Watts, whose cousin Jonathan Blunk was killed, said in an interview that she and other family members have at times felt ambushed by TV crews and reporters as they tried to go about their lives. "It's been very hard for some of these families," she said. "They just need to grieve without being bombarded."

After her cousin was killed, Watts said, she vowed to attend every court hearing to ensure that the victims are remembered. She said Holmes' followers are often in court but she has had no run-ins with them.

Zansberg, who represents several media companies including The Times, argued there should be openness in a case that has attracted worldwide attention. He asked Sylvester to keep the names public and to reduce the "excessive redaction."

He said unsealed documents are so heavily blacked out that they are often unreadable and, in essence, still sealed. The redacted documents include news stories, Colorado state statutes, and details already discussed in open court, Zansberg said.

Sylvester said he will rule by early next week.

Watts said she is unsure whether it makes much difference if the names are resealed. "Once it's out there on the Internet, it's public knowledge. Everyone already knows."

[For the record, 9:59 p.m., Oct. 11: An earlier version of this post said Holmes was a neuroscience doctoral student at the University of Denver. Actually, he was at the University of Colorado Denver.]

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