Aurora Theater Shooter James Holmes To Face Death Penalty

The prosecutors pursuing murder charges against Aurora, Colorado movie theater shooter James Holmes have announced their intention to seek the death penalty:

CENTENNIAL, Colo. — James E. Holmes deserves to die for killing 12 people in a storm of bullets inside a packed Colorado movie theater one night last July, prosecutors said in a hearing here on Monday. “For James Eagan Holmes, justice is death,” the Arapahoe County district attorney, George Brauchler, said in court.

In deciding to pursue the death penalty against Mr. Holmes, prosecutors rejected a plea offer floated last week by Mr. Holmes’s lawyers, in which he would have pleaded guilty to the shooting in exchange for life in prison with no chance of parole.

The decision by the district attorney came after consultations with dozens of victims and their families. In the courtroom, some of the victims’ family members began crying at the prosecutors’ announcement.

It now lays the path for a long trial that will hinge on questions of whether Mr. Holmes, a 25-year-old former neuroscience student, was legally insane at the time of the shooting. Although he has not entered an insanity plea, his lawyers have called him mentally ill, and have strongly suggested that they will center their defense on his mental state.

Weeks before the killings, Mr. Holmes saw a psychiatrist at the University of Colorado, Denver, where he had been a student. His records, any history of mental illness, and a notebook that he sent to the psychiatrist the day before the shooting could become a central part of a trial.

With little doubt that Mr. Holmes was the gunman, an insanity defense may be his lawyers’ only option.

While Holmes’s culpability is without question, getting the death penalty is by no means an easy task:

Indeed, the Holmes trial will now move forward with a start date scheduled for August 5, though Holmes’s attorneys are expected to request a delay. They are expected to mount an insanity defense, which is much easier to do in Colorado. As we’ve explained, in most states the burden of proving insanity falls on the defense. But in Colorado it’s the prosecutors’ job. They have to prove he is not insane, instead of the defense proving he is insane, which is how most states operate. While there is little doubt that Holmes was the shooter — a guilty plea offer is a tacit admission, after all — those 800 interviews will have to amount to something like a burden of proof. But expect to hear from many psychological experts regarding the insanity of Holmes as two of the most dramatic issues in America right now — mental health and gun violence — collide in a high profile summer trial.

To clarify this post, the relevant question isn’t Holmes’s mental state, but his mental state at the time of the crime. While the standards vary from state to state, legal insanity generally means that the Defendant was, at the time of the crime, unable to appreciate the nature of his acts and unable to understand that they were wrong. Colorado’s unique law means that the prosecutor will have to prove that Holmes failed to meet this test beyond a reasonable doubt. That is not an easy task.


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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Ron Beasley says:

    If I was the relative of a victim I would have wanted them to take the plea deal. It would have been over fast and closure could begin. This decision will simply drag it out for years and cost the taxpayers millions of dollars. One guy on death row in Colorado has been there for 19 years.

  2. PD Shaw says:

    Also, the jury has to recommend the sentence of death, after hearing almost unrestricted mitigating circumstances from the defendant. Colorado was one of the last states to prevent juries from this role.

  3. michael reynolds says:

    This is all a terrible tragedy for the gun industry: Holmes was obviously a valued customer. If he’s executed there’s literally no chance that he’ll make further gun purchases. Sad. So sad.

  4. matt bernius says:

    The decision to pursue the death penalty in this case — and in doing so apparently walk away from a plea bargain for life in prison without parole — was most likely politically motivated. Arapahoe County DA George Brauchler, decided that doing the logical thing would most likely have hurt his political future and branded him as being “weak on crime.”

    This points out one of the most problematic aspects of the death penalty — how the decisions to go for it often have more to do with the DA’s aspirations than the case itself.

  5. Tyrell says:

    @Ron Beasley:Why should a trial.take that long? This process should not be that lengthy since there is no doubt about guilt. Think about historic and important trials of the past. Most were done in a matter of months, not years. (Booth co-conspirators trial for example, Al Capone is another). Since the victims’ families were in favor of a capital punishment, than that seems to be the best choice.

  6. Ron Beasley says:

    @Tyrell: Because we have a flawed judicial system and innocent people are convicted. We know of at least two in Texas alone who were put to death but were not guilty and many have been exonerated while waiting on death row. When an innocent is put to death that is murder by the state. I’ll agree there is little doubt that James Holmes is quilty but we must have the same rules for everyone. As @matt bernius: points out above this was a political decision on the part of the DA not a judicial one.

  7. matt bernius says:


    Why should a trial.take that long?

    Well, in this case, there has to be a two step process:
    1. The prosecution has to prove guilt.
    2. The prosecution has to prove sanity to get the death penalty.

    In at the second case, the defense is going to mount a hard defense to disprove the prosecution’s position.

    And even if the prosecution wins, that will only trigger a series of appeal cases (as well it should, regardless of Holmes’ guilt or innocence).

    Regardless, the prosecutor has chosen to pursue the far more costly route. And without a doubt this has everything to do with his own electoral prospects, not the interests of “justice.”

  8. Tyrell says:

    @matt bernius: Again, it seems like the wheels of justice are grinding slower and slower. Someday it will be so long that jurors will have to be replaced as they die off or their health becomes bad. Of course the original lawyers and judges won’t be around either. The defendant will also be dead or in a nursing home before the trial is over, so many trials will never have a verdict. Future news article: “Murder Trial Drags Into Its 60th. Year: Moved To Defendant’s Nursing Home”
    I read a while back about the murder trial of the infamous Jack Ruby, the man who killed Lee Harvey Oswald. That trial only lasted around 5-6 months. There is a lesson here somewhere. Of course Ruby was killed off awaiting an appeal: someone made sure that he was not around to talk.