CENTENNIAL, Colo. – From the moment that James E. Holmes walked into court, his hands shackled, his hair a flaming orange, all eyes were riveted on the man accused of carrying out one of the worst mass shootings in the nation’s history. And what they saw was perplexing.
Stripped of his body armor, the 24-year-old suspect turned out to be slender and pale, with a thousand-mile stare and that tousled, comic-book hair, which looked bizarrely out of place in the formal setting of a courtroom. His expressions were hard to read, seemingly pained one moment, barely awake the next.
“You’re no tough guy now,” muttered Tom Teves, whose 24-year-old son, Alex, was among those who died in the bloodbath at a Batman movie in nearby Aurora early Friday.
Tom Teves was among the family members of victims who crowded into the three first rows, whipped out their glasses as soon as Holmes stepped into court on Monday, and scarcely took their eyes off him for the 15 minutes it took for an initial appearance.
Arapahoe County District Court Judge William B. Sylvester ordered Holmes held without bail, and scheduled another hearing for next Monday, when formal charges are likely to be filed. They are expected to include 12 counts of first-degree murder, which could carry the death penalty.
Holmes is the lone suspect in Friday’s mass shooting, in which a gunman opened fire with three weapons, including an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, during a midnight showing of “The Dark Knight Rises,” the latest Batman movie. In addition to the 12 dead, 58 people were injured, almost all by gunfire. Holmes, dressed in head-to-toe body armor, was arrested moments later just outside the theater’s emergency exit door.
During the initial court appearance, Holmes did not speak. He sat wearing a maroon jail jumpsuit, staring sometimes at the floor, sometimes into space. His eyes, heavy lidded, periodically closed.
Was he drugged? Exhausted? Exhibiting signs of mental illness? The spectators had to wonder as they stared. Some people gazed up and down his frame; others stared fixedly at his face, as if trying to plumb his soul.
The fascination was not mutual. At no point did Holmes appear to even glance at the people whose lives were so dramatically changed by the violence unleashed last week.
The court hearing was one of several developments in the case on Monday.
Police discovered two suspicious packages in a building at the University of Colorado’s Anschutz Medical Campus, a spokeswoman for the campus said. Holmes had been enrolled in a doctoral program there until June, when he withdrew. Police have said it was one of the places where he is suspected of receiving shipments of ammunition and bomb-making equipment.
After an investigation, university police determined that both letter-size packages were harmless, campus spokeswoman Jacque Montgomery said.
Five gunshot victims remained in critical condition at the University of Colorado hospital, spokesman Dan Weaver said.
San Diego attorney Lisa Damiani, the spokeswoman for the Holmes family, held a news conference but declined to answer most questions about her clients and their son, saying they wanted their privacy respected.
“I’m not going to comment on how they are feeling,” Damiani said. Questioned about whether Holmes’ parents stand by him, Damiani said: “Yes, they do, he’s their son.”
She also said that Holmes’ mother, Arlene Holmes, wanted to clarify what she told an ABC News reporter who called her early Friday to ask about her son. ABC had reported that when she was informed that her son was a suspect in a mass shooting, her response was, “You have the right person,” suggesting that she was not surprised by the news.
However, Damiani said she had merely said, “Yes, I am Arlene Holmes and, yes, I have a son.”
ABC said it stood by its reporting.
The primary focus Monday was on the legal proceedings against Holmes, which are likely to stretch out for a year or more. Arapahoe County District Attorney Carol Chambers said the case against him is “not a slam dunk” and that “in a case like this the investigation doesn’t stop. It will continue right up to the trial.”
In a news conference outside the courtroom, Chambers anticipated a trial could begin within a year, and that “if a death penalty is sought, that’s a very long process” that would require interviews with hundreds of victims and witnesses.
A final decision on whether to seek the death penalty will be made within 60 days of the suspect’s arraignment, Chambers said. Colorado has not executed anyone since the late 1970s, and has only four inmates on death row.
Daniel King, the public defender representing Holmes, was not immediately available for comment.
One looming question is whether Holmes will seek an insanity defense. Under Colorado law, he could claim to lack competence to stand trial. If found competent, he could still plead not guilty by reason of insanity. For that plea to succeed, however, a jury would have to be persuaded that he did not understand the difference between right and wrong – a standard that can be difficult for a defense to demonstrate.
No one who knows him has said publicly that Holmes is mentally ill, although his behavior – including his appearance in court – raises that question.
Marianne Wesson, a professor of law at the University of Colorado Law School and an expert in crime procedure, said even Holmes’ hair, if it remains brightly colored, could be a factor in his case.
“Will it help his case strategically? I can see it going either way,” she said.
“It may ultimately depend on jury members, whether or not they see it as a taunt, or an insult to injury or a sign of very troubled young man.”