Experts: Penalty phase of Aurora shooting trial will be “gut-wrenching”

Aurora theater shooter James Holmes is guilty of all 165 charges against him, a jury found Thursday.

Judge Carlos Samour read the long list of guilty verdicts, which included 24 counts of first-degree murder, to a tense courtroom packed with journalists, victims and their families. Tissue boxes lined the gallery aisles. Sobs were heard alongside the counts, each carrying a victim’s name and its own weighty grief.

Survivors and their families were pleased with the announcement. But the guilty verdict means the trial isn’t over. The court must now begin anew with the sentencing phase.

Jurors will hear another month of testimony before deciding whether the 27-year-old who faced his verdict with his hands in his pockets should be sentenced to death or life in prison without parole. Holmes’ parents and sister are expected to testify as character witnesses. The court will also hear more from Holmes’ victims.

“It’s going to be gut-wrenching testimony to listen to,” said defense attorney David Lane, a veteran of several capitol cases. “Victims are going to talk about how this crime has affected their lives irreparably. It’s going to be extremely emotional.”

Lane said Holmes’ defense team went into the trial “knowing full well” that a not-guilty verdict was unlikely. Still, the death penalty is far from certain.

A death sentence must be unanimous. Each juror has been instructed to treat his or her verdict as an individual moral decision.

“There is no right or wrong where a juror can look at another juror and say ‘Your morals are wrong’,’’ Lane said. “It’s not really up for debate.”

After 13 hours of deliberation, the jury found Holmes’ mental illness didn’t meet the requirements for legal insanity. But former prosecutor Bob Grant, whose case against Gary Lee Davis led to the state’s last execution, says his sickness still could save his life.

“The jury clearly understood the difference between crazy and insane, and that led to the guilty verdict,” Grant said. “But he’s still crazy.”

Thursday’s jury verdict marked both a legal and political victory for Brauchler, Colorado’s 18th Judicial District Attorney who is considered to be the Republican Party’s first choice to challenge Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet in 2016. Brauchler, who’s trying the Holmes case himself, has been mum about whether he’ll run and is expected to stay silent at least until the penalty phase is wrapped up.

Brauchler has said he sees capital punishment as the rightful outcome of the trial. “Justice is death,” he has told the jurors.

Snagging a death sentence may not be nearly as easy as winning the guilty verdicts. That’s because the execution of mentally ill people is increasingly controversial. Several groups, including the American Psychiatric Association and the National Alliance on Mental Illness, have called for an end to the practice.

It may well be on its way. There are currently three men on death row in Colorado, but the state hasn’t executed anyone since 1997. Gov. John Hickenlooper has said publicly that no executions will occur during his tenure. And public opinion of capitol punishment has waned with news accounts of several botched executions nationwide.

“I think the prosecution has a difficult road ahead of them,” Grant said.

Lindsay Schlageter, spokeswoman for the statewide campaign against the death penalty, warns that the process around capital punishment is tough on victims and their families. The inevitable appeals can take years.

“Every time one of those appeals comes up, they will have to relive the crime over and over again,” she said.

Nonetheless, the parents of several victims killed in the shooting have said they hope their children’s killer is put to death. Polls show that two-thirds of the American public still supports the death penalty in some circumstances.

“I think hardcore America still believes in the death penalty as a response to the most heinous of crimes,” Grant said.

The decision ultimately rests with the 12 jurors who have watched every day of the trial since it started in April. They will appear in court on Monday at 9 a.m. to begin the sentencing phase.


Photo credit: Matt Freedman, Creative Commons, Flickr.