DENVER – Tightening the secrecy over the year Colorado shooting suspect James Holmes spent studying neuroscience, a judge has barred the University of Colorado Denver from releasing any records about the former graduate student's time there.
What happened to the 24-year-old during his time in the program at the school's Anschutz Medical Campus is one of the many mysteries stemming from last Friday's mass shooting at a theater in which he's accused of killing 12 people and injuring 58 others at a midnight showing of "The Dark Knight Rises."
Neighbors and friends in San Diego, where Holmes grew up, described him as brilliant and sometimes awkward but never displaying signs of violence. He entered the prestigious Colorado program in June 2011, but a year later he dropped out after taking a year-end oral exam.
Numerous media organizations, including The Associated Press, filed open records requests for school records about Holmes after he was named as the suspect in the shooting that happened just after midnight July 20.
But in an order signed Monday and released by the school Thursday in response to an open records request by the AP, District Court Judge William Blair Sylvester said releasing information in response to requests filed under the Colorado Open Records Act would "impede an ongoing investigation." Sylvester is overseeing the criminal case against Holmes, who is expected to appear in court Monday and be formally charged.
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Sylvester cited a provision of the Colorado Open Records Act that prevents the public from viewing open records "prohibited by ... the order of any court."
Arapahoe County District Attorney Carol Chambers requested the order after the University of Colorado Denver warned her office Saturday about the record requests. In its request to the court, the district attorney's office noted that reporters were not requesting educational records, which would be prohibited from being released, but emails that are not exempted from the open records law.
The order was not part of the publicly available case file until Thursday due to a clerical error, said Robert McCallum, a spokesman for the courts.
Sylvester had already issued a gag order barring attorneys and police from discussing the case with reporters. He has also sealed the case file, preventing the public from seeing the accusations and legal arguments that both sides will make.
Mark Caramanica, freedom of information director at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press in Arlington, Va., called the order "highly unorthodox." He said it was unusual that a public institution would consult with an outside entity instead of just following the law and answering the request.
"It seems very premature for a court to get involved and make such a sweeping order," Caramanica said. "It seems like a very broad and overly aggressive approach."
The judge's order follows a pattern of a tightly controlled flow of information since the assault. Hours after the shooting, university officials tried to limit information released about Holmes.
About 11 hours after the attack, Barry Shur, dean of the graduate school at the university, sent an email to faculty, students and staff saying: "If anyone is contacted by the media, PLEASE refer them" to a school spokeswoman. Shur's email was released in response to an open records request from the AP.
Earlier this week, Shur denied trying to prohibit those who knew Holmes from talking.
"We told them they are fully free to interact with the media," he said at a press conference Monday.