Aurora theater shooter’s parents offer mute support for his life

CENTENNIAL — Day after day since the Aurora theater trial started in April, Arlene and Bob Holmes take their seats in Courtroom 201 of the Arapahoe County Justice Center. Jaws set and heads bowed, they sit still and quietly, as if trying not to draw attention to themselves. Their presence here, resolute yet unassuming, is the only public support they offer their son.

“I think they’re supporting him in (a way) that they can emotionally bear to support him,” says David Wymore, a Boulder-based defense lawyer who has represented several capital clients.

Most Americans know who James Holmes is. If they don’t recognize his name, they’re likely familiar with the image of him as he appeared in his post-arrest mugshot — his unruly hair dyed bright orange and his eyes bugged out in an eerily blank stare.

Now, nearly three years after killing 12 people and injuring 70 in a deadly shooting rampage on a crowded Aurora movie theater, he’s on trial for his life. Holmes – or at least his legal team – is trying to avoid the death penalty by pleading not guilty by reason of insanity. His parents have transplanted themselves from Southern California to attend every session of a trial that’s expected to last at least four months.

Every weekday, Judge Carlos Samour Jr.’s courtroom buzzes with chatter as spectators file in. On the right side of the aisle, victims and their loved ones exchange expressions of kindness and quiet words of strength. On the left, members of the media complain about their editors and laugh at inside jokes.

But Mr. and Ms. Holmes, in the second row near the left wall, are surrounded by a buffer of empty seats. Sometimes they lean their heads together in conversation. Sometimes they hold hands.

Reporters who’ve sat through the grim monotony occasionally notice each other discussing the defendant a bit too loudly within his parents’ earshot. The reporters discretely point to them and lower their voices to a whisper.

Aside from one softball interview with the Del Mar Times, the Holmeses’ community newspaper, they have had no media contact. They told this reporter they won’t grant interviews while the trial is ongoing.

Samour ruled that no family or friends of the defendant will be able to speak to the jury on his behalf. But that wouldn’t preclude Holmes’ parents from speaking publicly, if they wanted to. They apparently don’t.

Arlene Holmes touched on some of the reasons why in “When the Focus Shifts,” a book of prayers and poems she self-published in February.

“We don’t want to be photographed,” she wrote. “We are not celebrities. We are mourners.”

“There is a risk that the media will twist absolutely everything we say.”

The couple’s biggest splash in the media – their December 19, 2014 letter published in the Denver Post, asking jurors to spare their son’s life – did, indeed, garner plenty of backlash. The letter decried the need for a trial and called for an end to the death penalty. It was regarded by many pundits as insensitive to their son’s victims.

In her book, Arlene Holmes writes about the pain and isolation of being the parent of a mass murderer. She describes sleepless nights, gnawing pangs of guilt and thoughts of suicide. She remains convinced her son is a different kind of victim – one of severe mental illness.

Though she insists her son has schizophrenia, her book doesn’t delve into the darker corners of his mental state nor into the family’s long, uncomfortable history with mental illness and psychosis. Those are details that, should Holmes be found guilty, as expected, could convince jurors to spare his life in the sentencing phase of his trial.

Defense teams in capital cases usually use a strategy called “mitigation,” deploying their clients’ and clients’ families’ biographical, medical, criminal, educational, socioeconomic, social and psychological histories in an attempt to convince jurors not to sentence their clients to death. The hope is that humanizing their clients will elicit jurors’ empathy and plant seeds of doubt about meting out the death penalty.

Though the Holmeses have cooperated to some extent with their son’s legal team, they’re said to be reticent about sharing many potentially mitigating details. In both their letter to the Denver Post and Arlene Holmes’ book, the couple instead has focused on James’ normalcy. He’d never harmed anyone before, they said. They never expected anything like this to happen. Not even close.

“In capital sentencing, I put on people to talk about certain vignettes of a defendant’s life,” Wymore said. “Usually you start with nothing more than descriptors of a normal child. Then, witnesses detail how things went awry and the people around him didn’t see it, or didn’t want to see it or were afraid to see it. A lot of time it’s a coulda-woulda-shoulda story. And, there’s no doubt it can be painful for families to tell.”

In the theater shooting case in particular, prosecutor George Brauchler is working hard to portray Holmes’ mental illness as a character defect.

“It’s a pretty medieval way of looking at it… and the jury may share that view,” Wymore said. “What could save him is a message of ‘But for the grace of God go I’ — that his sickness, not a moral obliquity and not a dark and evil heart, would have led him to do this.”

Arlene Holmes’ book is, upon close inspection, a study in careful, measured avoidance. Throughout its 116 pages, she gives virtually no insight about her son. No information about the genetic makeup he inherited. No details about who he was as a baby, child, teen, young adult and graduate student specializing in neuroscience to understand his own perplexing brain.

Her approach seems intentional. The book’s title refers to what she says is her dismay that a death penalty trial shifts focus away from the victims and onto the defendant. “There can be no justice when the focus shifts,” she wrote. Her implication: Everything would be so much less uncomfortable if legal proceedings didn’t center around her son and, by association, her family.

If Arlene Holmes’ book was, as some have criticized, a public relations effort, it was a failed one. Some reviewers derided her as selfish for not donating the book’s proceeds to victims’ families (money from sales goes towards mental health research). In the end, the author’s purported focus on herself and her experiences tempts readers toward empathy, but the book is actually far less illuminating than what she no doubt could have revealed if she wanted to, or as Wymore put it, if she could emotionally bear it.

Sandy Phillips, mother of victim Jessica Ghawi, thinks the shooter’s parents should have been more cautious and aware of their son’s behavior.

“Don’t ask me, who lost a daughter by his hands, to have any sympathy for him or his parents. I don’t,” she said in an interview in May. If Jessi had expressed suicidal or homicidal thoughts, she added, “I wouldn’t have let my daughter leave the house.”

Tom Teves, father of victim Alex Teves, said simply of the Holmeses, “I have nothing to say about them.”

Arlene Holmes spent the first several weeks of the trial looking exhausted. She wore her hair in a low ponytail fastened with barrettes, its brassy brown color gradually giving way to gray roots. She has since had it dyed, but the easy-care ponytail remains.

Bob Holmes often helps his wife with her coat or jacket. He places his arm on her shoulder when they walk into Courtroom 201. She carries a small notebook and has spent most of the trial looking down at her lap, taking notes. He, too, has writing materials in his small bag, but they seem intended mostly to keep his hands busy. He appears to have paid alert, focused attention in every court session so far. During hours upon hours of testimony, he’s unwavering in looking intently at the person speaking.

Personal glimpses occasionally show through. Bob Holmes sometimes chats easily, even casually with an investigator on his son’s defense team. Once, he offered some orange Tic Tacs, but the investigator declined them. On the rare instances that the legal proceedings bring even a hint of humor, Bob Holmes laughs the laugh of someone who welcomes the relief. Sometimes he smiles absent-mindedly. Then he pauses, quickly returning to his serious, earnest expression.

At the end of her book, Arlene Holmes included a list of reading materials she drew upon while writing it. Notable was Andrew Soloman’s “Far From the Tree.” The 700-page tome explores parents’ relationships with children who are profoundly different from themselves, whether from physical impairment, transgender identity or schizophrenia.

Her mention of “Far From the Tree” hints that despite a history of mental illness in both her family and her husband’s, she has long struggled to understand – or at least accept – the way her son’s mind works.

Bob and Arlene Holmes never killed anyone. But, as is apparent in their expressions day after day, hour after hour of their son’s trial, they carry the weight of his atrocities and the obligation of not injuring his victims any further. Although their open letter to potential jurors asked that their son’s life be spared, it’s yet unclear how personal and public they’re willing to go to help mitigate against a death sentence.

If Holmes is convicted, the penalty phase is expected to last an additional month after the guilt-or-innocence proceedings end in mid-July. Samour has ruled that the defendant’s parents would not be allowed to testify about the impact a death sentence would have on them. Still, there would be nothing – at least legally — standing in the of way of the two people closest to the defendant speaking out about his humanity and what, in their view, makes his life worth saving. There must, no doubt, be a photo of the defendant on his first day of school, for example. Or a Mother’s Day card he finger-painted. Or memories of him as a kid waking up after a nightmare.

There must be something that his legal team could present as evidence in hopes of touching if only one juror to stand up against sentencing their son to death. That is, if his parents are willing to dig it up and bear the weight of even more public scorn.

For now, it’s still unclear whether they, like so many victims and victims’ families before them, would ultimately agree to take the witness stand, finally revealing the deeper layers of their family’s story.

Photo credit: Image from James Holmes’ notebook.


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