What we know about James Holmes’ trial is that it’s set to start in Arapahoe County in less than a month. And that it’ll be long, very long – likely to last through the end of summer. And that the jurors the 18th Judicial District Attorney and defense lawyers have taken months to select are, statistically speaking, more likely than not to lean toward meting out a death sentence.
What we don’t know are the details of who Holmes is and what ails him. Very little has been made public about his mental illness – a condition so mystifying to him that he enrolled in a University of Colorado post-graduate program to understand the workings of his own brain. We don’t know how deeply and darkly mental illness runs in his family. These are tender truths no parent wants aired publicly. They’re also the facts that, likely more than all other factors, could save Holmes from lethal injection.
Arlene and Bob Holmes have stayed quiet about their son since 12 people died and 70 were injured that night when “Dark Knight Rises” was first screened at an Aurora movieplex the summer of 2012. They’ve made trips from their home near San Diego to see him in Colorado. But, publicly, they’ve done nothing to help, or “mitigate” his capital defense by telling the story of his mental illness. It’s tougher for juries – even a jury in Colorado’s pro-death penalty 18th Judicial District — to sentence someone to death if they understand the psychological and familial factors that formed them.
Instead, Holmes’ parents have taken a different tack in the court of public opinion. Arlene Holmes, a nurse, has self-published a small book of prayers she wrote since her son – his hair dyed pumpkin orange and eyes at once wide but blank in courtroom photos — became the man Americans loved to hate nearly three years ago. Her book, “When the Focus Shifts,” is her “way of drawing attention to her opposition to the death penalty, especially for the mentally ill, and her advocacy for improved treatment for those with severe mental disorders,” Joe Tash, a Del Mar Times reporter, wrote after an exclusive interview.
One of Arlene Holmes’ prayers is for George Brauchler, the elected DA who’s seeking the death penalty against her son. “I do not know what you have been through in life. I do not know why you want to pursue execution of a mentally ill man. But I pray for you, so that you will find peace in your life. I pray you will change your mind. Please stop this quest for death so you may focus on those who are alive,” reads her prayer.
“My basic feeling is it’s immoral to have a state kill its own citizens, no matter what they did,” she said in her newspaper interview. “I’ve always thought it was wrong. Now I’ve had a lot of time to think about it, and how much it hurts people.”
Another prayer is to the victims, whom Arlene Holmes says she prays to by name every day.
Between the lines, her book and the couple’s suburban So-Cal newspaper interview read like prayers for themselves.
“That’s some of the guilt we have, that we didn’t recognize he was ill and needed treatment,” Arlene Holmes told Tash about the condition she described only in broad brushes. “Because so many people like to blame the parents if a child is mentally ill, we have to reaffirm to ourselves every day that we were good parents and good people, and this still happened anyway.”
Maybe the book and the local newspaper interview are as far as the Holmes family will go in trying to defend – or explain – their son. Or maybe, if the jury convicts him and a death sentence starts looking likely, the theater shooter’s family will open up about more than just the things for which they pray.