CENTENNIAL, Colo. — The prosecution in the Colorado theater massacre case will seek the death penalty against accused shooter James E. Holmes, rejecting for the time being an attempt by the defense to have him plead guilty and spend the rest of his life in prison.
At a hearing Monday before Chief Judge William Sylvester, the prosecution announced its decision to seek the death penalty.
“In this case for James Eagan Holmes, justice is death,” a grim Arapahoe County District Attorney George Brauchler said. As the announcement was made, several people in the courtroom audience began to cry quietly. In the overflow room filled with many victims’ relatives, one man clenched his fist as in a victory gesture.
Holmes showed no emotion at the announcement.
Brauchler said his office had reached out to 800 victims and family members. He said he had personally spoken to 60 victims.
As Holmes walked in he glanced into crowd and seemed to catch the eye of his father, who was seated in the courtroom. As the announcement was made, Holmes’ father put his arm around his wife.
Last week, the defense offered to have Holmes plead guilty in exchange for taking the death penalty off of the table. Prosecutors angrily called that offer an attempt to build support for a plea deal, and Monday’s announcement was not a surprise. But prosecutors can change their mind at any point and halt what is otherwise expected to be a long and costly legal process.
Prosecutors have said the defense has repeatedly refused to give them the information they need to evaluate the plea agreement.
Holmes, 25, a former neuroscience student, is accused of opening fire in a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., at a packed premiere showing of “The Dark Knight Rises” on July 20, killing 12 people and injuring about 70 others. The massacre horrified the country and helped launch national discussions on gun control, mental illness and capital punishment.
In a court filing last Wednesday, public defenders Daniel King and Tamara Brady said they had a standing offer weeks ago to let Holmes plead guilty without the possibility of parole if Brauchler dropped the death penalty.
“Mr. Holmes is willing to resolve the case to bring the proceedings to a speedy and definite conclusion for all involved,” the filing said.
The defense also said that it will continue to pursue an insanity defense if the prosecution rejects the offer of a guilty plea. If Holmes is found to be insane or suffer from a mental defect, he cannot be put to death.
But an insanity defense could add months, if not more, to the proceedings, the defense warned.
The trial is scheduled to begin Aug. 5.
The prosecution cried foul over what it called a defense tactic designed to sway public opinion.
“The filing is extremely unusual and unprecedented in that it attempts to involve this court in plea negotiations, in essence saying to the court: ‘If the prosecution does not accept our offer then this court and those associated with this case will suffer by having to endure months of motions and months of a trial,’ ” the prosecution said in court papers.
The prosecution, insisting it would not be bullied, further complained that it could not begin to entertain a plea deal without information that has been withheld by the defense.
In a related issue, prosecutors also argued in the filing that the defense should not be allowed to try to force a New York reporter to reveal her source for a story about sealed evidence.
The defense can’t complain about leaked information, prosecutors argue, because defense lawyers violated the gag order when they revealed the plea offer in their court filing. A hearing on that matter is also scheduled Monday.