Gary Strauss, USA TODAY
CENTENNIAL, Colo. -- Prosecutors are scheduled to lay out their case against accused mass murderer James Holmes at a five-day preliminary hearing opening at Arapahoe County District Court here Monday.
Holmes, 24, faces 166 counts of first-degree murder and attempted murder for a July 20 shooting spree at a suburban Denver movie theater in Aurora that left 12 people dead and 58 wounded. The preliminary hearing will determine if there is sufficient evidence to put Holmes on trial.
It's among the largest mass shootings in U.S. history but has been overshadowed by a series of attacks capped by the massacre in Newtown, Conn., last month of 20 Sandy Hook Elementary School students and six school employees. And Saturday morning, just 4 miles from the mall where the July shooting spree took place, four people were killed, including the suspected gunman, after a six-hour standoff at a townhome.
Monday's proceedings are drawing intense interest. Court officials are bracing for an onslaught of onlookers, anti-gun activists and news media.
A court-imposed gag order has kept much of the case under wraps, preventing prosecutors, police and officials at the University of Colorado, where Holmes had been a student, from discussing it. But court filings made public last week suggest the case against Holmes will be mapped out through charts, myriad witnesses, video and other evidence. Holmes' court-appointed attorneys have subpoenaed two unnamed witnesses who were not at the theater, according to court records. Presiding Judge William Sylvester is permitting prosecutors and the defense two "advisory witnesses,'' according to court filings.
At a midnight showing of Batman movie The Dark Knight, a gunman entered the packed theater, launched a smoke grenade and then began firing dozens of shots into the crowd. Holmes was arrested outside the theater by Aurora police, who found him in riot gear, armed with an assault-style rifle with a 100-round magazine, a pump-action shotgun and a semi-automatic pistol. A fourth gun was found in his car. In the weeks leading up to the shootings, police say, Holmes used the Internet to stockpile weapons and 6,000 rounds of ammunition, and acquire improvised explosive devices that he rigged to explode in his apartment.
Holmes' lawyers have suggested in prior court hearings that their client, who dropped out of the University of Colorado's neuroscience doctoral program after failing an oral exam in June, suffers from mental illness, a strategy that suggests an insanity defense. At earlier hearings, Lynne Fenton, a university psychiatrist, said she had treated Holmes more than a month before the shootings but had no contact with him after June 11, when she reported concerns to campus police.
Some family members of victims will attend the hearings, in the main courtroom or in a private room that normally holds juries. For others, the hearing -- and other mass shootings -- are too painful reminders of loved ones lost.
San Antonio resident Sandy Phillips's 24-year-old daughter, Jessica Ghawi, was among those killed in the Aurora theater. On the morning of the Newtown massacre, Sandy and Jessica's stepfather, Lonnie, were boarding a plane for Denver to accept an honorary degree on Jessica's behalf from Metropolitan State University, where she had been studying to pursue a career as a sportscaster.
"We were shaking and sobbing and crying in the back of the plane,'' Sandy Phillips says. "You go right back to the day you lost your loved one. It takes you back to your own grief and doubles it.''
She won't be at this week's hearing. "I'm not strong enough to go through this right now," she says. "It's much too hard.''
Jerri Jackson, whose 27-year-old son, Matt McQuinn, was killed as he shielded girlfriend Samantha Yowler, won't attend, either. "I know it's part of the process -- but I can't do it. I do think there is enough evidence to put him on trial."