COLORADO SPRINGS — Anyone hoping for hints at a potential motive in Robert Lewis Dear’s first appearance in court didn’t get it.
This afternoon, the man accused of a murderous post-Thanksgiving rampage at a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood faced a judge in a downtown courtroom on a video feed from the county lockup. Dressed in a grungy protective vest without sleeves, his hands cuffed in front of him and head slightly bowed, Dear didn’t say much beyond ‘yes’ and ‘no’ when a judge asked him questions.
Reporters from local and national print, online and TV outlets filled up most of the seats in the wood-paneled El Paso County courtroom. A handful of victims’ relatives huddled in a pew.
On a flat-screen TV, a white-bearded Dear appeared next to his court-appointed public defender, Dan King. King was also the public defender who this summer was successful in getting a jury to spare Aurora theater shooter James Holmes from execution.
The purpose of this first public court hearing for Dear was for a judge to advise him of his rights, lay out the charges, and explain the court process for him moving forward.
“The initial charge against you is murder in the first degree,” said Judge Gilbert Martinez, the chief justice of Colorado’s 4th Judicial District. The charge will keep Dear in jail without bond until his next hearing.
The next step is for the local district attorney’s office to file formal charges at a hearing set for Dec. 9.
Dear’s attorney appeared concerned about “expanded media coverage,” and asked the judge about the issue “in the interest of justice.” Judge Martinez said he didn’t think expanded media coverage would deprive Dear of a fair hearing. Under a court order, only one video camera and a still photographer were allowed in the courtroom. Once inside, reporters had to turn off phones and computers, and couldn’t use recording devices.
King also asked for access to the crime scene, and also text messages and e-mails sent by authorities about the shooting. A district attorney said police are still working the crime scene, and argued that some e-mails and text messages to and from law enforcement would be “work product” not available to Dear’s defense.
Judge Martinez advised Dear of his right to remain silent, told him he was barred from harassing any potential witnesses or victims, and asked Dear if he had any questions.
“No questions,” the accused gunman said in a low, gravely voice.
Following the hearing, as District Attorney Dan May held a news conference on the snowy grounds outside the courthouse before a fan of cameras and reporters, a man leaned out a car window and shouted “Go find something else! Go home!” Passersby stopped to watch and continued on their way.
Calling it “obviously a high-magnitude case,” the district attorney said he would be part of a three-prosecutor team handling the prosecution against Dear. Under Colorado’s legal system, May said he could not yet say whether the government would seek the death penalty.
“It will be at the time that he is arraigned. After his arraignment we will have 63 days. Anything we do decide on that will be on a public record,” May said, adding how Colorado law provides for a speedy trial within six months time after an arraignment. Continuances, however, could push any potential trial beyond six months, he said.
When a reporter mentioned how the fatal gun attack at the Planned Parenthood clinic was the second triple homicide here in two months, and what the district attorney might say about the importance of providing justice for victims, May said, “My ethics don’t allow me to talk about that.”
The we’ve-been-here-before process of covering high-profile mass shootings in Colorado was also a topic of conversation among some in the assembled press corps as reporters waited outside the courtroom prior to the hearing. With only 25 seats available for the press, court officials conducted a lottery, asking members of the media to put their business cards in a box to be drawn at random.
For some working within the court system, yet another high-profile media event in the context of Colorado’s bloody history of gun violence was hard to ignore.
“We lived the Colorado theater shooting,” said one state court official when asked if he’d gotten much sleep in the last few days. “This is nothing comparatively.”