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US shooting insanity plea accepted

A US judge has accepted of plea of not guilty by reason of insanity from the man accused of last summer's Colorado cinema shootings.

The decision sets the stage for a lengthy mental evaluation of James Holmes, who is accused of killing 12 people and injuring 70 in a packed Denver-area screening of a Batman movie last July. Holmes is charged with multiple counts of murder and attempted murder, and prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.

Holmes's lawyers have repeatedly said he is mentally ill, but they delayed the insanity plea while arguing that state laws were unconstitutional. They said the laws could hobble the defence if Holmes's case should ever reach the phase where the jury decides if he should be executed. The judge rejected that argument last week.

The July 20 massacre was one of several that jolted the debate over gun violence in the US, and it prompted Colorado to adopt significant state-wide gun controls this year.

Hundreds of people were watching a midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises at the Aurora cinema when the shooting occurred. The dead included a navy veteran who threw himself in front of friends to shield them, an aspiring sports journalist who had survived a mall shooting two months earlier, and a six-year-old girl.

Prosecutors say Holmes spent months buying weapons, ammunition and materials for explosives and scouted the cinema in advance. He donned police-style body armour, tossed a gas canister into the seats and opened fire, they say.

The insanity plea is widely seen as Holmes's best chance of avoiding execution, and possibly his only chance, given the weight of the evidence against him, but his lawyers delayed it for weeks, saying Colorado's laws on the insanity plea and the death penalty could work in combination to violate his constitutional rights.

The laws say that if Holmes does not co-operate with doctors conducting a mandatory mental evaluation, he would lose the right to call expert witnesses to testify about his sanity during the penalty phase of his trial.

Defence lawyers argued that is an unconstitutional restriction on his right to build a defence. They also contended the law doesn't define co-operation. Judge Carlos Samour Jr rejected those arguments last week and said the laws are constitutional.

The next step is an evaluation of Holmes by state doctors to determine whether he was insane at the time of the shootings. That could take months.

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