The former graduate student accused of opening fire at a midnight screening of the new Batman film in Colorado, killing 12 people, was charged on Monday with 24 counts of first-degree murder, making him eligible for the death penalty if convicted.
James Holmes, who was arrested behind a suburban Denver multiplex minutes after the July 20 shooting at a packed showing of The Dark Knight Rises, also faces 116 counts of attempted murder in one of the worst outbursts of US gun violence in recent years. Fifty-eight people were wounded in the attack, some of whom remain in critical condition.
Prosecutors have said a decision could be months away on whether to seek the death penalty against Holmes, 24, who made his second court appearance on Monday. Colorado has three men on its death row and but has not executed a condemned inmate since 1997.
Arapahoe County District Attorney Carol Chambers’ office charged Holmes with two counts for each victim — one for carrying out the crime “after deliberation” and the second for “malice manifesting extreme indifference to human life.”
Holmes, who authorities say styled himself after Batman’s comic-book nemesis “The Joker,” appeared in court clad in jail garb, his hair still dyed bright orange, but with the color fading to pink in places.
He sat impassively at a table with two defense lawyers through the 45-minute hearing, but seemed more alert than during his initial court appearance a week ago, when he looked dazed and groggy.
The former neuroscience student spoke only once, quietly answering, “Yes,” in response to a question from Arapahoe County District Judge William Sylvester. He mostly kept his gaze lowered and did not look at a courtroom gallery packed with members of the media and victims’ family members.
The judge set a pre-trial hearing for Sept. 27, tentatively scheduling a preliminary hearing for the week of Nov. 13.
Police say Holmes entered Theater 9 at the Century 16 multiplex in the Denver suburb of Aurora wearing tactical body armor and a gas mask and tossed smoke bombs before spraying moviegoers with bullets from three guns.
Authorities who rushed to his apartment following the movie house massacre said they found it wired with enough explosives to bring down the three-story building, and spent several days dismantling the booby traps. Holmes was also charged on Monday with possessing an explosive device.
Prosecutors, who are under a protective or “gag” order imposed in the case by the judge, declined to explain their decision to file the double charges, but legal experts say it could to be a strategy to offer jurors more than one path to a guilty verdict.
During the hearing, defense attorney Tamara Brady asked that prosecutors turn over evidence collected in the case. The defense is seeking a package that news reports have said was sent by Holmes to a University of Colorado psychiatrist, Lynne Fenton.
Prosecutors responded that they had not yet opened that parcel, which according to Fox News contained a notebook outlining his plans for the shooting, including stick-figure drawings.