CENTENNIAL, Colo. -- James E. Holmes, charged with multiple murder counts in the shooting spree at an Aurora, Colo. movie theater, was allowed on Tuesday to change his plea to not guilty by reason of insanity.
Judge Carlos Samour Jr. of the state’s 18th Judicial District accepted the plea at a hearing. A not guilty plea had originally been entered in the case.
When Samour asked if he had any questions, Holmes replied no. Samour then accepted the plea.
“I find Mr. Holmes understands the effects and consequences of the not guilty by reason of insanity plea,” the judge said. “He was looking at the advisement and appeared to be following along.”
The morning action by Samour starts the clock on a series of court-ordered psychological tests to determine Holmes’ mental state at the time of last summer’s massacre inside a packed movie theater. Hundreds of people were there for the midnight showing of the Batman movie “The Dark Knight Rises.”
Holmes, 25, is charged with 116 counts of first-degree murder, attempted murder and weapons charges in the July 20 rampage that killed 12 people and injured 70 more.
The charges could carry the death penalty, but that will depend on decisions concerning the state of his mental health. The doctors who will examine Holmes could conclude that the former neuroscience doctoral student at the University of Colorado-Denver was insane or had a mental defect that made him unable to distinguish right from wrong at the time of the shooting.
The mental evaluation is expected to take months. Holmes will be evaluated by doctors from the state hospital in Pueblo.
Holmes' lawyers repeatedly have said he is mentally ill, but they delayed the insanity plea while arguing state laws were unconstitutional. They said the laws could hobble the defense if Holmes' case should ever reach the phase where the jury decides if he should be executed.
The judge rejected that argument last week.
Still ahead are likely years of legal proceedings.
If jurors find Holmes not guilty by reason of insanity, he would be committed indefinitely to the state mental hospital. He could eventually be released if doctors found his sanity had been restored, but that is considered rare.
If jurors convict him, a penalty phase would follow. Both the defense and prosecution could call witnesses to testify about factors that could affect why Holmes should or shouldn't be executed. The jury would then decide whether Holmes should be executed or sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole.
If jurors impose the death penalty, it would trigger court appeals and open other possibilities that would take years to resolve.
In March, Chief District Judge William Sylvester entered a traditional not guilty plea on Holmes’ behalf after the defense said it was not prepared to advise Holmes on how to plea. The defense argued it could not proceed without knowing whether the district attorney would seek the death penalty.
Three weeks later, on April 1, Dist. Atty. George Brauchler announced that “justice is death” for Holmes.
Court documents show the defense had previously offered to have Holmes plead guilty and serve life in prison without the possibility of parole if the district attorney took the death penalty off the table.
Sylvester told the defense it could change the plea to not guilty by reason of insanity but would have to show why the change was warranted. Samour took over the case from Sylvester in April.
Deam reported from Colorado and Muskal from Los Angeles.