By Keith Coffman
DENVER, Dec 20 (Reuters) - The former graduate student accused of gunning down scores of patrons in a Colorado movie theater last year was found competent to stand trial by court-appointed sanity evaluators, a judge said Friday.
The disclosure by Arapahoe County District Court Judge Carlos Samour came in the course of legal wrangling over the evaluations that threaten to delay for months a possible trial for 26-year-old James Holmes, who is charged with killing 12 people and wounding dozens more during a midnight screening of the Batman film, "The Dark Knight Rises", in the Denver suburb of Aurora.
Lawyers for Holmes have invoked the insanity defense for the accused gunman, triggering an evaluation by state mental health experts that looked both at his sanity at the time of the shootings as well as his competence to stand trial currently.
Samour, in disclosing that Holmes was deemed competent in September to stand trial, did not say whether the evaluators viewed him as sane at the time of the shootings.
It was not immediately clear when a trial would begin for Holmes, or whether he would continue to be viewed as competent by the court.
However, longtime Colorado criminal defense attorney and legal analyst Wil Smith said that he could be found not guilty by reason of insanity even as he is viewed as competent to stand trial.
"Competency deals with somebody's ability to communicate with his attorneys and understand the criminal proceedings," Smith said.
Lawyers for both sides have remained silent under a gag order imposed by a previous judge in the case. An upcoming hearing on whether to require Holmes to undergo another sanity evaluation will be closed to the public, the media and victims of the shooting.
Attorneys representing Holmes have said that their California-born client was in the midst of a psychotic episode when he committed the mass shooting in July of 2012.
But after sanity evaluators completed their work this fall, prosecutors filed a motion asking for further testing. In his ruling on Friday, Samour said that prosecutors believed the experts who examined Holmes over the summer had "an unfair bias."
Samour did not say why prosecutors objected to the evaluation. He set the closed hearing for next month to discuss the matter.
Holmes is charged with multiple counts of first-degree murder and attempted murder in the case, and prosecutors plan to seek the death penalty if he is convicted. (Reporting by Keith Coffman; Writing by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Ken Wills)