Alleged “Dark Knight” Gunman's Legal Journey Could Take Years

Mental-health and death-penality considerations may draw James Holmes' criminal case out for years.

Alleged "Dark Knight" killer James Holmes’ brief appearance in court Monday marked the first step in what will likely be a years-long slog through the criminal justice system, including exhaustive reviews of his mental health and whether he should face the death penalty, Colorado criminal justice experts say.

“There are some cases that scream out ‘crazy’ and this is one of them,” longtime Denver-area defense attorney David Lane said.

Lane watched on television as Holmes sat silent with his lawyer, hair dyed red and orange, looking sleepy at one moment and confused the next. Afterwards, Lane said Holmes seemed to fit the “classic case” of untreated schizophrenia, in which the disease emerges unexpectedly in someone’s early 20s and culminates in “a massive explosion.”

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Holmes, a highly intelligent doctoral student at the University of Colorado with no prior criminal history, is accused of storming into an Aurora, Colo, theater packed for a midnight Friday screening of the new Batman movie, ”The Dark Knight Rises” and calmly opening fire with a variety of assault-style firearms. Twelve people were killed and another 58 were wounded. Police found him standing outside the theater, dressed head -to-toe in black military combat gear, and told them he was the Joker, Batman’s comic-book arch villain. He also told them he’d booby-trapped his nearby apartment with explosives, which turned out to be true.

In the days since the massacre, a portrait of Holmes has emerged as a gifted and accomplished neuroscience researcher who drifted into a very dark place. He withdrew from his prestigious PhD program and began to stockpile guns and ammunition, authorities said.

What exactly triggered the attack is still under investigation. He is being held without bail in solitary confinement and will return to court next Monday, when he is expected to be formally arraigned on 12 counts of first-degree murder.

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Lawyers’ first big legal hurdle is to determine whether Holmes is competent to stand trial – that he understands the charges against him, and that he can assist in his own defense.

That process alone can take months. If he’s found incompetent, he must be sent to a state mental hospital for treatment.

“Virtually everyone initially found to be incompetent is at some point found to be restored to competency,” said Patrick Furman, a University of Colorado law professor. The rare exceptions, he said, typically come in cases in which the defendant is severely developmentally disabled.

When and if Holmes is deemed by a judge to be fit for trial, then his lawyers will likely plead not guilty by reason of insanity, setting in motion many more months of legal proceedings, Furman said. The crux of such of defense is proving that a defendant was incapable of determining right from wrong. Even if you are deemed competent to stand trial, you can still be found not guilty by reason of insanity.

And then there’s the question of the death penalty.

Colorado hasn’t executed anyone since 1997, and there are only three people on death row there. Two are men found guilty in the murder of a young couple, and the third is Nathan Dunlap, who shot to death four people in an Aurora Chuck E. Cheese restaurant in 1993 and only recently exhausted his appeals.

It is up to the Arapahoe County district attorney to decide whether to seek capital punishment against Holmes. That requires months of research and input from victims’ families.

The current DA, Carol Chambers, who has sought the death penalty several times in recent years, was understandably noncommittal Monday. In a few months, term limits will force her out of office, and two men, one Democrat and one Republican, are campaigning to succeed her.

That raises the possibility that Holmes’ case will become political fodder between now and the November election.

But the decision ultimately requires a careful consideration of state law, which requires a district attorney to weigh a long list of “aggravating" and "mitigating" factors, noted Tom Raynes, a former district attorney from southwestern Colorado and the director of the Colorado District Attorneys’ Council. Even then, pursuing the death penalty seems the most likely course.

“It’s hard to imagine a case more egregious than this,” Raynes said.

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