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Was James Holmes Insane? Aurora Theater Rampage Trial Begins With Opening Statements

Jurors began hearing the case against James Holmes, accused of killing 12 and injuring 70 in a 2012 shooting at an Aurora, Colorado movie theater.
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/ Source: NBC News

Is he insane or diabolical?

James Holmes, charged in the deadly 2012 gun rampage at an Aurora, Colorado movie theater, went on trial Monday — with prosecutors portraying him as an intelligent but emotionally troubled aspiring scientist who secretly plotted an attack that he believed would make his life more meaningful after a string of academic and romantic failures.

Holmes, 27, a former University of Colorado graduate student, has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. His defense team argued that the shooting was the culmination of a long battle with schizophrenia, warping his view of reality and compelling him to kill people.

But in his opening statements to jurors, Arapahoe County District Attorney George Brauchler argued that Holmes suffered from acute social anxiety yet knew what he was doing when he slipped into a sold-out midnight showing of "The Dark Knight Rises" and fired into the crowd, killing 12 and injuring 70. He also booby-trapped his nearby apartment with explosives, a failed attempt to thwart authorities.

Brauchler spent two hours taking the court through the months, weeks and hours leading to the attack, mapping a promising biology researcher's descent into despondency and his growing fascination with killing people.

The prosecutor also went into grisly detail of the shooting itself, describing the grievous wounds suffered my many of the victims, including a father-to-be, a 6-year-old girl, a man celebrating his 27th birthday, military service members, and a man who fell on a friend to shield her from bullets.

"On a cool July night a few years ago about 13 miles from where we sit, 400 people filed in to a box-like theater to be entertained, and one person came there to slaughter them," Brauchler told the jury in a courtroom in Centennial, Colorado.

Brauchler then played a recording of a 911 call from the theater, gunfire and screams in the background.

He continued: "The man that came there that night, covered head to toe in armor to protect him from any injury, a man who brought with him four weapons and hundreds of rounds of ammunition, he’s in the courtroom with us today."

The prosecutor pointed to Holmes, sitting a few feet away, appearing unmoved. Wearing a pressed, blue pinstriped shirt and red-rimmed glasses, his hair neat and beard trimmed, Holmes appeared starkly sober in comparison to his wild-eyed appearances immediately after the shooting, when he had red-dyed hair.

His parents sat a few rows behind him.

Brauchler never mentioned Holmes by name. Instead, the prosecutor referred to the defendant as “this guy,” jabbing a thumb in Holmes’ direction. He cited assessments of two independent psychiatrists who determined after the shootings that Holmes was sane.

Lead defense attorney Daniel King followed with opening statements that he began by reading a rambling, nonsensical passage from Holmes' personal notebook, written in the weeks before the shooting. King suggested that the writings were the result of a mental illness that made him unable to distinguish between right and wrong.

There is no evidence that Holmes hurt anyone before the day of the shooting, King said. He was, rather, a good kid who studied and worked hard.

"When James Holmes stepped into that theater in July 2012, he was insane," he said. "His mind had been overcome by a disease of the brain that had plagued him and pursued him for years. In his words, 'I have fought for years and years to overcome my biology.' But in the end, when florid psychosis erupted in 2012, he lost that struggle."

King asked the jury to resist the natural inclination to seek a guilty verdict as response to the community's overwhelming grief. He asked the jury members "to accept the reality of mental disease" and as an answer for why the shooting happened.

"Mental illness can sure sound like an excuse," King said. "But in this case, it's not. The illness is real. It can overwhelm lives. There will be no doubt in your minds by the end of this trial that Mr. Holmes is severely mentally ill."

If Holmes is found not guilty by reason of insanity, he will be sentenced indefinitely to a state mental hospital. If he is found guilty, the jury will then decide on a sentence — death, or life in prison with out the possibility of parole.


—With Jack Chestnutt and Jacob Rascon