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Colorado massacre: Judge enters not guilty plea for James Holmes

March 12, 2013|By Jenny Deam and Michael Muskal

CENTENNIAL, Colo.— A visibly annoyed judge ordered a not guilty plea for James E. Holmes, who is charged with the deadly Aurora, Colo., movie theater shooting, after his defense said they were not ready to enter a plea.

Wearing shackles and prison togs, Holmes was impassive in the Arapahoe County Court as he was arraigned on 166 criminal counts in connection with the shooting on July 20. The former neuroscience doctoral student at the University of Colorado-Denver is accused of opening fire in a packed movie theater during a midnight showing of  “The Dark Knight Rises,”  killing 12 and wounding about 70.

Prosecutors said they will announce on April 1 whether they will seek the death penalty. The trial is tentatively scheduled for Aug. 5 and is expected to last four weeks.

PHOTOS: Aurora theater shooting

Judge William B. Sylvester entered the not guilty plea after the defense indicated it needed more time to prepare a plea for the man whose lawyers have already said was mentally ill. Relatives of the victims in the courtroom appeared to sigh when defense attorney Daniel King said it would take until May or June 1 for the defense to be ready to enter a plea because more work and mental evaluations were needed.

“We are still digesting the court’s rulings. We cannot ethically stand before you and enter a plea,” King said.

“How am I to make an informed decision based on the limited information you've given me?” Sylvester replied.

Sylvester then entered the not guilty plea on Holmes’ behalf. The judge told the defense that it could change the plea later, allowing a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity.

With his parents, James and Arlene, sitting in the front row, the suspect sat silently through the proceedings. Unlike his first court appearance when his hair was was orange, he now has thick, curly dark brown hair and a full, bushy beard.

Tuesday’s proceedings were partly about legal strategy. The defense could have entered a not guilty plea and faced a jury trial or he could have pleaded guilty, skipping the trial and going straight to sentencing.

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If the not guilty plea stands, Holmes faces life in prison or possibly death if convicted.

It is widely expected that Holmes, whom his lawyers have characterized as deeply mentally ill, will eventually plead not guilty by reason of insanity. If he is found to be insane or to have a mental defect, he would avoid the death penalty.

However a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity carries risks. Among other issues, it opens the proceedings to an independent mental health evaluation, for example. Holmes would also lose his confidential status with health professionals before the shooting.

Prosecutors said in court that they oppose any delay.

In his argument, defense lawyer King said he couldn’t enter a plea until more work had been done and until prosecutors announce their death penalty decision.

Prosecutors asked that the defense be ordered to explain what had changed if they decide to enter a not guilty by reason of insanity plea.

Late last week, Sylvester paved the way for the arraignment by overruling defense claims that the state’s laws on insanity pleas were unconstitutional.

On Friday, the defense again signaled its intention by asking that hospital videotapes of Holmes' admission last November for an emergency psychiatric evaluation be preserved. Sylvester granted the request.

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michael.muskal@latimes.com

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