CENTENNIAL, Colo. – After nearly three months of jury selection — and almost three years after the mass shooting — a jury could be seated Tuesday for the death penalty trial of the man charged with killing 12 people and injuring 70 others in a packed suburban Denver movie theater.
James Holmes' attorneys don't dispute that he pulled the trigger but say he was in the grips of a psychotic episode when he slipped into the theater and opened fire while dressed from head to toe in combat gear.
The jury will decide whether he was legally insane at the time of the July 20, 2012, attack. If the panel finds him guilty, it must also decide whether he should be put to death or sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
WHAT'S TAKEN SO LONG?
Some prospective jurors have asked the judge why it has taken nearly three years for the case to come to trial. But Judge Carlos A. Samour Jr. has said that is not an unusual or inordinate delay for a trial this complex. The death penalty and the insanity plea introduced multiple, complicated and time-consuming legal requirements.
Despite the challenges, the proceedings have actually moved faster than planned. Samour had initially expected opening statements in June, but they are now scheduled for April 27 because jury selection moved so quickly.
"I can't rush things, this is too important for me to rush," Samour said Monday after attorneys began making their final decisions about who will determine Holmes' fate.
Experts say jury selection alone was among the largest and most complicated in U.S. history, with court officials initially summoning 9,000 prospective jurors, who began filling out written questionnaires Jan. 20. Hundreds were asked to return for one-on-one sessions, where defense attorneys, prosecutors and the judge questioned them, sometimes for hours, about their views on the death penalty and mental illness. The pool was whittled down to just 93 remaining candidates on Monday, but attorneys still need at least another day to grill them about other issues, including the rule of law and how they assess witnesses' credibility.
Monday's session did take longer than Samour planned. He hopes to find 12 jurors and as many as 12 alternates to sit on the panel. Once the jury is seated, the trial is expected to last another four or five months.
WHAT ABOUT OTHER LARGE TRIALS?
In the amount of time it has taken so far in Denver, federal jurors in Boston convicted marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. That case was accelerated by Tsarnaev's admission that he participated in the April 15, 2013, bombings but that it was his brother, Tamarlan, who was the mastermind.
That trial was initially expected to last three to four months, but it could end in about half that time. The penalty phase, when the same jury will decide whether to sentence Tsarnaev to death or life in prison, is scheduled to start April 21.
The Texas trial for the killer of a former Navy SEAL depicted in the movie "American Sniper" was complicated by publicity about the film, but jury selection was rapid because it did not involve concerns about the large number of people affected by the crime.
In other recent mass killings, the suspect has committed suicide, been killed by police or pleaded guilty before the case went to trial.
Holmes is charged with 165 counts of crimes including first-degree murder in the deaths of 12 people, attempted murder in the wounding of 70 others and an explosives charge, because he is accused of booby trapping his apartment in a failed attempt to cause even more carnage. Each murder and attempted murder charge appears twice in court documents, and it took Samour nearly two hours to read each charge, naming every victim, aloud in court on Monday.
Samour hopes to have as many as 12 alternate jurors because of the greater likelihood that jurors could have hardships during a trial that is anticipated to last at least four months. But he said Monday there may be fewer alternates if too many people still in the jury pool are excused.
Prosecutors and defense attorneys will each get 75 minutes on Tuesday to question prospective jurors as a large group. They will be able to ask the judge to dismiss people for such reasons as their inability to be fair and impartial, personal connections to the case and other reasons. Each side can dismiss up to 22 people without giving a cause.