Opening statements in Aurora theater trial focus on horror, insanity

This article was published here, on the CU News Corps website.

By Peri Duncan // CU News Corps // Published April 27, 2015

CENTENNIAL, Colo. — Prosecutors focused on “bullets, blood, brains and bodies” during Monday’s opening statements in the Aurora theater shooting trial, while defense attorneys predictably posited that defendant James Holmes was insane when he walked into the theater on July 20, 2012, for a midnight movie showing that ended with 12 people dead.

The trial began at 9 a.m. with hearings prior to the opening statements. The jury was not present during those proceedings, although Holmes was in attendance with his attorneys. The defense took the opportunity to make last objections, and the prosecution made a few more requests. At this time Judge Carlos Samour made it very clear that he prefers efficiency, and he wouldn’t put up with either counsel delaying the court.

In the afternoon, District Attorney George Brauchler began his two-hour opening with an intensely emotional statement, “through this door is horror; through this door are bullets, blood, brains and bodies.” He said one man felt as if he’d lost his career, love life and purpose, and planned for two-and-a-half months the mass shooting in the Century Theater in Aurora. He introduced two court-ordered psychiatric exams that concluded that Holmes was sane.

Brauchler then played a 911 call recorded from the night of the shooting beginning with the shocking sound of a gunshot. Brauchler’s opening chronicled the shooting as well as the months of Holmes’ planning and issues leading up to it, interspersed with names and pictures of some of the victims.

He outlined the defendant’s apartment and the bomb setup there, which was intended to distract the police and first responders but failed to detonate. This included detailed pictures and descriptions of the setup, as well as how the apartment floor was sprinkled with magnesium. A magnesium fire is exacerbated by water; the intent was to keep first responders away from the theater as long as possible and to cause significant damage.

Also included were some conversations between the defendant and his girlfriend as well as various mental health professionals, intended to highlight a lack of respect for human life. In recounting the defendant’s conversations with doctors, Brauchler also pointed out the spectrum of different potential diagnoses.

At the end of the prosecution’s emotional opening statements, Brauchler returned to the victims he had earlier mentioned, and detailed what happened to them in the theater. Caleb Medley, who was attending the premiere with his 9-month pregnant wife, was shot in the face during the shooting. Responders told his wife that she had to leave immediately, and she kissed her husband on the forehead, believing that he was already dead. That night, while she gave birth in the hospital, her husband underwent life-saving brain surgery two floors above her. The DA revealed that tomorrow, Medley will be the first witness the prosecution calls.

Brauchler showed the jurors large pictures of all but two of the victims after the shooting. For the two he decided against showing, he explained to the jury that the images were exceptionally graphic and that he didn’t want them to have to see them more than once. At that point, members of the audience and jury were crying.

The prosecution’s opening statements ended with a request to the jury to hold Holmes accountable for his actions. The court broke for a 20-minute recess prior to the defense’s two-hour opening statements. Both audience members and press walked silently out of the room, looking teary-eyed and shell-shocked.

Dan King began the defense’s opening statements by reading a series of mostly nonsensical pages from the defendant’s notebook. He said, “When Holmes stepped into that theater in 2012, he was insane.”

King spoke for the first hour of the defense’s opening, explaining the progression of the defendant’s mental illness and calling it schizophrenia. The laid-out information often overlapped with what the prosecution showed, specifically when it came to interactions with mental health professionals, but the defense presented it in a significantly different way.

They showed many videos of Holmes in jail that chronicled his progression further into psychosis, according to King. He made it clear the defense is not denying that the defendant committed the shooting but that they are arguing he was insane at the time of the shooting. King repeatedly integrated Colorado’s legal definition of insanity into his statements, and emphasized a history of mental illness in Holmes’ family tree. He also said the defendant now regrets his actions in the theater.

Katherine Spengler, the deputy Colorado state public defender, presented the second half of the defense’s opening. She chronicled the progression of the illness specifically. Spengler focused on the different types of schizophrenia, at what point the signs first appeared, how the medications he was prescribed affected his illness, and she described the delusions and psychoses the defense argues he experienced. She mentioned that schizophrenia often comes on full-fledged in late adolescence or people’s early 20s, which was right around the time Holmes allegedly started acting more and more psychotic.

The defense team’s opening statements ended with the same point it repeatedly pushed throughout its presentation: definite statements that the defendant is suffering from a mental illness.

After an emotional day for everyone in the courtroom, tomorrow’s proceedings will begin at 8:40 a.m., kicking off the prosecution’s argument with theater shooting survivor Caleb Medley’s testimony.

Editor’s Note: CU News Corps will remember the victims of the tragedy with every post via this graphic.

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