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The former neuroscience graduate student accused of opening fire at a midnight screening of the new Batman film in Colorado, killing 12 people, was charged on Monday.
James Holmes, 24, sat silently in a packed courtroom as a judge told him about the charges filed against him: in all, prosecutors charged Holmes with 142 counts in the shooting rampage.
Holmes faces two first-degree murder charges for each of the 12 people killed and two attempted first-degree murder charges for every one of the 58 injured in the July 20 shooting. In addition, Holmes was charged with one count of possession of explosives and one count of a crime of violence.
The maximum penalty for a first-degree murder conviction is death. The multiple charges expand the opportunities for prosecutors to obtain convictions.
After the charges were read, prosecutors and defence attorneys argued over whether a notebook that news reports said Holmes sent to his psychiatrist and had descriptions of the attack was privileged information.
A shackled Holmes did not react as the charges were read. At one point, Holmes, his hair still dyed orange-red, leaned over to speak to one of his lawyers and furrowed his brow. When the judge asked him if he was okay with postponing a hearing so his team could have time to prepare, he said softly: “Yeah.”
Some court spectators wore Batman T-shirts. At least one victim attended, and she was in a wheelchair and had bandages on her leg and arm.
Prosecutors have said a decision could be months away on whether to seek the death penalty against Holmes.
The judge set a pre-trial hearing for September 27 and scheduled a preliminary hearing for the week of November 13.
Police say Holmes entered Theatre 9 at the Century 16 multiplex in the Denver suburb of Aurora wearing tactical body armour and a gas mask and tossed smoke bombs before spraying moviegoers with bullets from three guns.
Pregnant survivor Ashley Moser suffered a miscarriage after the shooting, but the loss of her foetus did not alter the number of murder charges because the unborn cannot be counted as a homicide victim under Colorado law.
Moser, 25, was left paralysed from the waist down from her bullet wounds. Her daughter, six-year-old Veronica Moser-Sullivan, was the youngest of those who died in the shooting.
Moser’s aunt, MaryEllen Hansen, said after the hearing that she found Holmes a “diabolical, evil presence”.
“But he looked very sane to me, he really did. His reaction looked different,” she said.
“When we’ve seen him before, he looked like he was kind of spaced out or out of touch. But he seemed very, very alert today and very lucid as to what was going on.”
Prosecutors, who are under a protective or “gag” order imposed in the case by the judge, declined to explain their decision to file the double charges, but it appeared to be a strategy to offer jurors more than one path to a guilty verdict.
During the hearing, defence attorney Tamara Brady asked that prosecutors turn over evidence collected in the case. The defence is seeking a package that news reports have said was sent by Holmes to a University of Colorado psychiatrist, Dr Lynne Fenton.
Prosecutors responded that they had not yet opened that parcel, which according to reports contained a notebook outlining his plans for the shooting, including stick-figure drawings.
Holmes, a San Diego resident, was a doctoral student of neuroscience at the university’s Anschutz campus before turning in paperwork to drop out last month. Court documents filed by defence lawyers said he had been under Fenton’s care.
Police have not offered a motive for the shooting rampage that stunned Aurora and evoked memories of the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School less than 32km away in Littleton.
Authorities have said that after his arrest, Holmes called himself “the Joker” and experts say his mental state could play an important role in the case.
The judge set an August 9 date to consider requests from attorneys representing news organisations to unseal court records and investigative documents. He added he would hold a hearing on August 16 to determine what evidence should be considered protected between Holmes and his psychiatrist.
According to police, on the night of the shooting Holmes was armed with a Smith & Wesson M&P .223 semi-automatic rifle, similar to an AR-15 assault rifle; a 12-gauge shotgun and a Glock .40-calibre handgun.
An additional Glock .40-calibre handgun was found in his car. All the weapons had been bought legally in the previous 60 days. – Reuters, Sapa-AP