CENTENNIAL, Colo. (AP) — There was plenty of horror in the courtroom as Aurora police officers gave detailed accounts of the grim scene after a gunman killed 12 and wounded dozens others during a July rampage at a packed movie theater.
What was missing Monday was an explanation as to why James Holmes, 25, might have launched the attack. That’s what drew dozens of survivors and reporters to the first day of what is expected to be a weeklong hearing to determine whether Holmes will stand trial for the shooting.
“I mean, basically my son came out here to go to school. He never came back. He came back in a jar. So I would at least like to know what happened,” said Tom Teves, of Phoenix, whose 24-year-old son Alex was killed in the attack. “There’s no way to understand this because there’s no understanding it, but we want to know at least what happened.”
Prosecutors have suggested in court that Holmes launched his July 20 rampage after flunking out of a neuroscience graduate program. Defense attorneys have said he is mentally ill. Daniel King, one of Holmes’ lawyers, on Monday pointedly asked a pathologist who had just detailed each of the 12 fatalities: “You’re aware that people can be found not guilty on the grounds of insanity?”
The hearing will be the best opportunity yet for survivors to find out about Holmes’ mental state and the sequence of events that led up to the attack. It comes weeks after a shooting at a Newtown, Conn., school killed 20 children and six adults and increased scrutiny on the combustible mix of firearms and mental illness.
A bearded and disheveled Holmes showed little emotion as police officers struggled to hold back tears during their testimony, reciting a litany of heartbreak: discovering a 6-year-old girl without a pulse, trying to keep a wounded man from jumping out of a moving police car to go back for his 7-year-old daughter, screaming at a gunshot victim not to die.
“After I saw what I saw in the theater — horrific — I didn’t want anyone else to die,” said Officer Justin Grizzle, who ferried the wounded to the hospital.
Holmes watched intently as one detective showed a surveillance video of him calmly entering the theater lobby, holding the door open for a couple behind him, and printing out tickets to the midnight showing of “The Dark Knight Rises” that he purchased electronically nearly two weeks earlier. Authorities did not show a video of the attack but say Holmes, wearing body armor, tossed two gas canisters into the packed theater, then opened fire.
When officers arrived, they saw people running out of the theater and trying to drive away. Others walked. Some of the wounded tried to crawl out.
Officers found Holmes standing next to his car. At first, Officer Jason Oviatt said, he thought Holmes was a policeman because of how he was dressed but then realized he was just standing there and not rushing toward the theater.
Oviatt said Holmes seemed “very, very relaxed” and didn’t seem to have “normal emotional reactions” to things. “He seemed very detached,” he said.
At one point, after arresting Holmes, Grizzle asked him if anyone had been helping him or working with him. “He just looked at me and smiled ... like a smirk,” Grizzle recalled.
Inside the theater, the movie was still playing on the screen. An alarm was going off and moviegoers’ cellphones rang unanswered. There was so much blood on the floor, Grizzle said, that he slipped and almost fell down.
Caleb Medley was wounded in the head, and Grizzle recalled the 23-year-old aspiring comedian struggling to breathe on the way to the hospital. Every time he thought Medley had stopped breathing, Grizzle said, he yelled at the man not to die. Medley survived, and his wife gave birth to their first baby days after the shooting.
Another man Grizzle took to the hospital kept asking where his 7-year-old daughter was. For about half of the trip, Grizzle said, he had to restrain him from jumping from the patrol car. At one point, the man opened the door and tried.
Sgt. Gerald Jonsgaard recalled not finding a pulse on the youngest victim, 6-year-old, Veronica Moser-Sullivan. Jonsgaard had to stop his testimony because he was about to break down in tears.
Two pathologists testified that the victims who died were shot anywhere from one to nine times. Matthew McQuinn, 27, who dived in front of his girlfriend to shield her from the bullets, was shot nine times.
Holmes is charged with more than 160 counts, including murder and attempted murder. The hearing will allow the judge to determine whether the prosecution’s case is strong enough to warrant a trial, but it’s rare for a judge not to order a trial if a case gets this far.
Legal analysts say that evidence appears to be so strong that Holmes may well accept a plea agreement before trial.
While prosecutors have yet to decide on whether they will seek the death penalty, such a plea could get Holmes a lesser sentence, such as life in prison; help the state avoid a costly trial; and spare survivors and families of those who died from the trauma of going through a lengthy trial.