Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 20 August 2014

Prosecutors seek death penalty for Batman cinema gunman

Batman cinema killer James Holmes in court (AP)
Batman cinema killer James Holmes in court (AP)

Prosecutors are to seek the death penalty against the Batman cinema gunman who killed 12 people and wounded 70 in Colorado.

Their decision came in a court hearing held four days after prosecutors publicly rejected an offer by James Holmes' lawyers for him to plead guilty to avoid execution.

Prosecutors had said the proposal was not a valid plea bargain offer, although they could still agree to a plea before the case goes to trial. Holmes' lawyers are expected to argue he is not guilty because he was legally insane at the time of the July 20 shooting.

They balked at entering that plea last month, saying they could not make such a move until prosecutors made a formal decision on the death penalty. Holmes methodically stockpiled weapons and ammunition for his assault on a packed midnight screening of "The Dark Knight Rises," and booby-trapped his apartment to explode and distract any police who responded.

The massacre was repeatedly cited by gun control advocates who pushed a hotly contested package through the Colorado state legislature last month. The bills include a ban on the sort of high-capacity magazines that Holmes used to spray the cinema with dozens of bullets in a matter of seconds.

President Obama is scheduled to visit Denver this week to highlight the legislation as part of his push for more gun control following December's Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre.

As the tangled case against Holmes returns to court, survivors and families of the victims are uncertain about what happens next. If the case goes to trial, "all of us victims would be dragged along potentially for years," said Pierce O'Farrill, who was shot three times."It could be 10 or 15 years before he's executed. I would be in my 40s and I'm planning to have a family, and the thought of having to look back and reliving everything at that point in my life, it would be difficult," he said.

Defence lawyers revealed in a court filing last week that Holmes would plead guilty if prosecutors allowed him to live out his days in prison with no chance of parole instead of having him put to death. That prompted an angry response from prosecutors, who called it an attempt to drum up public support for a plea deal.

Prosecutors also said the defence has repeatedly refused to give them the information they need to evaluate the plea agreement. If prosecutors do accept a deal, they will want to ensure that it is air-tight, said Karen Steinhauser, a former prosecutor who is now a professor at the University of Denver law school.

Holmes would give up his right to appeal by pleading guilty, she said. And although he could ask to change the plea if new evidence surfaces or if he claimed his lawyers were ineffective, "it's very, very hard to withdraw it," she said.

District judge William Sylvester would want assurances from defence lawyers that Holmes is mentally competent to plead guilty and accept a life sentence with no parole, Ms Steinhauser said. The judge could order a mental competency evaluation before accepting a guilty plea, but she said that was unlikely unless Holmes showed some sign of incompetence.

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