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First hearing in Colorado theater shooting too painful for some

A preliminary hearing in the case against James Holmes is set for Monday. While the court is bracing for massive attendance, at least one victim won't be there.

January 06, 2013|By Jenny Deam, Special to The Times
  • Suspect James E. Holmes appears in court in July. The hearing will determine if prosecutors have enough evidence to go to trial on 166 counts of murder, attempted murder and weapons charges.
Suspect James E. Holmes appears in court in July. The hearing will determine… (RJ Sangosti, AP )

CENTENNIAL, Colo. — After more than five months of legal maneuvering, a preliminary hearing is set to begin Monday in the case against the suspect in the Aurora movie theater massacre to determine if prosecutors have enough evidence to go to trial on 166 counts of murder, attempted murder and weapons charges.

Hundreds are expected to testify in the weeklong hearing, including scores of victims who will recount the terrifying moments just after 12:30 a.m. on July 20 when authorities say James E. Holmes, a brilliant former neuroscience student, opened fire in a packed midnight showing of "The Dark Knight Rises."

Twelve people were killed in the rampage and at least 70 were wounded. Holmes, held without bond and in isolation at the Arapahoe County Jail, has not entered a plea. He has sat shackled and silent in the courtroom during pretrial hearings.

Court and law enforcement officials have braced for the crush of worldwide interest in the case. Two overflow rooms have been set up with live video feed, including one for the 100 or so victims and family members who have said they will attend.

Reporters will jockey for elbow room, and a contingent of Holmes' supporters, who call themselves Holmsies, will no doubt vie for seats. Armed deputies will be stationed on the rooftops in the judicial compound, as they have been at every Holmes court appearance.

Yet at 9 a.m., when all rise for Chief Judge William B. Sylvester of Colorado's 18th Judicial District, not everyone touched deeply by the crime will be there.

"We talked about it as a family, but we decided not to go. My son doesn't want to be there," Mike White said Friday. Mike White Jr., 33, was shot that night in Theater 9 of the Century 16 theater complex, bullets piercing his lung and breaking his scapula. Shrapnel remains in his body, and doctors say it could take one or two more surgeries to repair the damage.

Since July, the elder White has been more worried about his son's emotional wounds. Once a cheerful, outgoing school security guard, the younger man has not been able to return to work, rarely leaves the house and has fallen into a deep depression. He moved into his mother's house, where, in the beginning, family members watched closely for signs that he might be suicidal.

"He was really, really down. No smiles, no nothing. He is getting a little better, but he still isn't to the point of going out," White said of his son.

A victims advocate from the district attorney's office has warned family members that some of the evidence could be disturbing, even gruesome, including videos and photos from inside the theater. "I think that would be too much," White said.

But Jessica Watts, whose cousin, Jonathan Blunk, was killed, says she must go. "I want to have a little more closure about what happened to my cousin in his final moments," Watts said Friday.

She has been to nearly every hearing, saying it was her way to honor those hurt and killed. She even locked eyes more than once with Holmes — a man she someday hopes to forgive. Because she has heard much of the testimony so far, she thinks she has steeled herself emotionally. She worries more about those victims and family members who will be in court for the first time.

Though an abundance of evidence is expected to be presented by prosecutors, a preliminary hearing is not a "mini-trial," said Craig Silverman, a former Denver district attorney who has followed the case closely. Prosecutors do not have to prove motive but must show enough evidence exists to proceed to trial.

"This case is not a whodunit," Silverman said. "It's all about the death penalty."

The defense team representing Holmes has already said he is mentally ill, so it is widely expected his lawyers will seek an insanity defense. It is unclear how much information on Holmes' mental condition will be allowed during the preliminary hearing. Silverman said judges typically do not allow defense attorneys to try to introduce that at this stage.

Still, late last week Sylvester ruled that the defense could call its own witnesses to contradict or refute prosecution witnesses, especially when it concerned Holmes' "mental state."

If Holmes is found to be insane or have a mental defect, the death penalty is off the table, Silverman said. He assumes that is the ultimate goal for the defense.

Prosecutors have painted Holmes as a promising doctoral candidate at the elite University of Colorado-Denver neuroscience program who violently unraveled and methodically prepared for the movie theater attack for months.

Assistant Dist. Atty. Karen Pearson has said in court that as early as March 2012, Holmes told a classmate he wanted to kill people. On June 7, the day he failed a key oral exam, he bought an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle to add to his growing collection of weapons, combat gear, explosive materials and thousands of rounds of ammunition, according to the prosecution.

He began withdrawing from the university June 10 and saw a university psychiatrist one day later. At that one and only counseling session, Dr. Lynne Fenton has said she was alarmed enough to call campus police to learn more about Holmes. It is not known what he told her.

But public defenders Daniel King and Tamara Brady have floated the idea that Holmes was deeply troubled and had reached out to Fenton to stop him, even possibly trying to call her minutes before the shooting began.

Silverman predicted the defense would "try to seize on any irrational behavior and try to highlight it."

Watts, whose cousin was killed, knows the preliminary hearing will widen wounds far from healed, not only for family members but for the entire community.

She said she now realizes that Holmes' family is also a victim: "I feel very badly for them. I've come to understand that everybody in this situation has lost."

nation@latimes.com

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