The first step in the trial of James Holmes, the man accused of killing 12 people and wounding 70 more inside a crowded movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, in 2012, began Tuesday afternoon with the start of jury selection.
Lawyers will choose 12 jurors and 12 alternates from a jury pool of 9,000 people, which experts told the Associated Press is the largest ever in U.S. history, to decide if Holmes was mentally ill when he allegedly killed a dozen people and wounded scores more. The jurors who are ultimately picked for the case will be expected to serve for as many as six consecutive months, on a wage of $50 per day, The Denver Post reported this week. They were all summoned from the state’s Arapahoe County.
Holmes, now 27, is charged with multiple counts of first-degree murder and attempted murder after he allegedly opened fire at a midnight premiere of “The Dark Knight” inside the Century Aurora 16 movie theater on July 20, 2012. He pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity for the incident, one of the deadliest mass shootings in American history. Last April, prosecutors made public their plans to seek the death penalty against Holmes. He had been a graduate student at the University of Colorado prior to his arrest.
If jurors find Holmes guilty, they will then decide if they wish to recommend the death penalty. If they find him not guilty by reason of insanity, Holmes will enter a state institution that provides treatment for the mentally ill.
The judge presiding over the trial, Carlos Samour, told the courtroom Tuesday ahead of the jury selection process that 2,000 of the 9,000 jury summons were either “undeliverable” or excused, according to NBC News’ Jack Chestnutt, who was at the court in Centennial, Colorado. Two-hundred-fifty jurors were summoned to arrive at the court on Tuesday.
Jurors must fill out an 18-page questionnaire with 77 questions on various topics, including the death penalty and insanity. After reviewing the completed questionnaires, lawyers will recall some of the jurors in mid-February.
The jurors, lawyers and potential witnesses are forbidden from speaking with the media.
Holmes appeared in court Tuesday with his defense lawyers, wearing a grey coat, tan pants and black shoes, according to NBC News. Holmes looked “more like a young graduate student” than the “disheveled” appearance he previously had, Chestnutt reported. Holmes’s brown hair and beard were trimmed, and he wore brown horn-rimmed glasses. Holmes’s appearance seemed a stark contrast to his orange hair and prison garb that he wore during previous hearings.
For the duration of his hearing on Tuesday, Holmes leaned back in his chair and exchanged a few comments with his lawyers.
In their first public comment about their son’s actions, Robert and Arlene Holmes wrote a letter that was published last month in The Denver Post. They requested their son be spared the death penalty because they said he is mentally ill. They also denounced the need for a trial, saying the lengthy process will force Americans to relive the shooting. Prior to the massacre, Holmes never harmed anyone nor had a criminal history, his parents wrote. Finding Holmes not guilty, his parents added, would prevent future harm to him and other people.
Samour called almost seven times as many prospective jurors as the 1,350 who were summoned recently for an initial screening in the Boston Marathon bombing trial in Massachusetts federal court, according to The Boston Globe.
Holmes’s trial was postponed multiple times in the two-and-a-half years since the deadly shooting, including the time it took for attorneys on both sides to debate whether he should undergo a second mental health evaluation.
Holmes is one of few suspected mass murderers to stand trial. Adam Lanza, who allegedly killed 20 first-graders and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012, shot himself after the massacre. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed themselves on the same day of the 1999 Columbine High School shooting in Columbine, Colorado.
Timothy McVeigh was executed in June 2001 after his conviction for the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people, including 19 children, and wounded hundreds more. Jurors in the McVeigh case heard testimony and deliberations for more than two months. His deadly attack on the government was the worst domestic terrorist attack in the United States at the time.
Opening statements for Holmes’s months-long trial are expected to begin in late May or early June. The trial could last through October.