by Trevor Hughes and Gary Strauss, USA TODAY
CENTENNIAL, CO. - A judge presiding over the murder case of James Holmes entered a not guilty plea on his behalf Tuesday, but said Holmes could later enter a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity at a later date.
Holmes is charged with multiple counts of first-degree murder in the July 2012 deaths of 12 suburban Denver theater goers. He was expected to plead not guilty by reason of insanity at an arraignment hearing, but his public defenders unsuccessfully sought a delay on entering a plea.
Holmes sat silent during the proceedings as defense attorney Dan King said they need more time to prepare a plea. "We cannot ethically represent that we are ready to proceed," King said. "We're just not ready now."
Prosecutor Karen Pearson countered that Holmes' defense team has had plenty of time to prepare. "They've had eight months to get to this point," she said. "At some point this case simply has to move forward."
Arapahoe County Judge William Sylvester agreed, and ordered the case to move forward as Holmes rhythmically shook his head from side to side.
A plea by reason of insanity would set in motion a court order to have the 25-year-old University of Colorado doctoral program dropout undergo state psychiatric evaluation to determine if he is competent to stand trial. Holmes faced over 160 counts of murder and attempted murder.
Prosecutors say a heavily armed Holmes, dressed in police assault style gear, entered the rear of Aurora's Century 16 theater complex and began firing at a packed midnight theater crowd. Aside from the 12 killed, dozens more were wounded by shots fired from a military style assault rifle, semi-automatic shotgun and pistol. Several other patrons were injured as they tried to flee the theater.
Holmes' attorneys had said in previous court hearings that Holmes suffers from unspecified mental illness and had been treated by a University of Colorado psychiatrist before dropping out of the school's doctoral neuroscience program in May after failing a May final exam.
A Monday court ruling by Sylvester clarified Holmes' options. Sylvester said that Holmes could be medicated by state psychiatrists to determine his competency and that he could also be given a polygraph examination as part of the state's evaluation to determine if he was legally insane at the time of the July 20 shootings.
Veteran criminal attorneys say Holmes had little option other than the insanity plea, noting the overwhelming evidence presented by prosecutors at a January preliminary hearing in which they showed Holmes actions leading up to the shootings, including weapons purchases and staking out the Aurora theater complex, and placed him at the scene where he was arrested by Aurora Police.
"There is no defense other than insanity,'' says Craig Silverman, a former chief deputy Denver prosecutor. "There's a significant chance he's suffering from a mental disease or defect that rendered him incapable of knowing right from wrong."
If Holmes is judged capable of standing trial, he could ultimately face the death penalty if convicted of murder. Arapahoe County prosecutors have not said if they are seeking capital punishment.
Even so, Colorado has not carried out an execution since 1997. The appellate process could drag out a case for years. Silverman notes convicted Aurora, Colo., killer Nathan Dunlap has been on death row since 1993.
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