CRIME
08/07/2015 07:12 pm ET Updated Jan 04, 2017

James Holmes Sentenced To Life In Prison For Aurora Theater Shooting

"Please, no more death," his defense attorney had said.

"The death of a seriously mentally ill man is not justice, no matter how tragic the case is. Please, no more death."

So said defense attorney Tamara Brady in her closing argument in the sentencing phase of mass murderer James Holmes' trial, and after six-and-a-half hours of deliberations, the jury agreed. On Friday, the panel of nine women and three men sentenced Holmes to life in prison without the possibility of parole for the 2012 theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado, which killed 12 and injured 70.

The news was met by mixed reactions from spectators, ranging from disbelief to a sigh of relief.

"It doesn't make sense, and we don't believe it," said Robert Sullivan, the grandfather of 6-year-old victim Veronica Moser-Sullivan, in a press conference afterward. "But we have to abide by it."

Jordan Ghawi, the brother of victim Jessica Ghawi, applauded jurors "for letting reason and not emotion" guide their decision. Then he contemplated what the state could have bought with the millions it spent on the trial.

Arapahoe County District Attorney George Brauchler also expressed some disappointment, but praised jurors, at a press conference after the sentence was announced.

"As frustrated as I am in not achieving the goal that I thought was justice, what I want everyone who sees this or hears this to know is, those jurors did one hell of a job. These people sat there day in and day out, and they took in all the information, all of the horror," Brauchler said. "While I'm disappointed with the outcome, I'm not disappointed in the system, or this process."

The jury had to render sentences for 12 counts of first-degree murder and 12 counts of murder with extreme indifference, but they failed to agree unanimously on any of them, triggering an automatic punishment of life in prison without the possibility of parole. The Denver Post noted that it's been six years since a Colorado jury last voted for a death sentence.

Brauchler also applauded the first responders who ran into the theater, calling them "heroes." And Aurora Fire Chief Mike Garcia said of them, "The heroism you demonstrated that night will never be forgotten. Job well done."

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper tweeted support for the victims.

Among the 12 people killed by Holmes were three men who died shielding their girlfriends, two servicemen, a single mother and Veronica, the youngest victim -- whose mother was paralyzed in the shooting, after which she also lost her unborn child.

PHOTO GALLERY
The Aurora Theater Shooting Victims

The emotionally exhausting trial saw 2,695 pieces of evidence presented and 302 witnesses testify over the course of 64 days. Nearly all of it was built around two central questions: Was Holmes legally sane at the time of the shooting (i.e., did he know right from wrong?), and what's the appropriate punishment for someone who is mentally ill, given a crime of this magnitude?

Jurors answered the first question in mid-July with a clear "yes," finding Holmes guilty on 165 charges, mainly for murder or attempted murder. He was also found guilty of possession or control of an explosive or incendiary device because he had meticulously wired his apartment to explode in an attempt to distract first responders headed to the theater.

"That is logical. That is rational, and that is anything -- anything -- but psychotic," Brauchler said at the end of the trial's guilt-or-innocence phase, referring to the plans Holmes had made in the months before the shooting. "That guy was sane beyond a reasonable doubt, and he needs to be held accountable for what he did."

Aurora Police responded to the Century 16 movie theatre early Friday morning, July 20, 2012.
Karl Gehring via Getty Images
Aurora Police responded to the Century 16 movie theatre early Friday morning, July 20, 2012.

During that first phase of the trial, Judge Carlos Samour Jr. repeatedly instructed jurors to make their decision regarding Holmes' guilt based on the letter of the law, not their sympathy for the victims.

One of those victims was Ashley Moser, a pregnant mother whose personal loss was so great that the defense sought to limit her testimony for fear that her story would unfairly bias the jury.

Moser and her 6-year-old, Veronica, were shot as they attempted to leave the theater, still thinking that pranksters were setting off fireworks during the movie. When Moser took the stand in June, she recalled reaching for her daughter, who "just slipped through my hand." Amid the confusion, she said she felt a sharp pain in her own chest and crumpled to the ground on top of her daughter, unable to move. "I heard the movie still playing and people crying and screaming," she recalled. Both Veronica and the unborn baby died.

"She was my best friend," Moser said of her daughter later, crying. "She was my life."

Heather Dearman, far right, and her daughter Aubry, 8, cousins of Aurora Theater shooting victim Veronica Moser-Sullivan, hug
Helen H. Richardson via Getty Images
Heather Dearman, far right, and her daughter Aubry, 8, cousins of Aurora Theater shooting victim Veronica Moser-Sullivan, hug during a remembrance ceremony for the 4th anniversary of the Aurora Theater shooting on July 20, 2016 in Aurora, Colorado.

"This was a terrible tragedy in which great harm was caused for large numbers of people," Valerie Hans, a Cornell Law School professor who is an expert on insanity pleas, told The Associated Press. "It's virtually impossible to divorce that question of insanity from its context. I really feel for jurors who have to listen to wrenching testimony and steel themselves and look at the law and see which legal option really is the best match."

The defense never denied that Holmes committed the crime and instead attempted to persuade jurors that the former neuroscience graduate student was extremely mentally ill at the time. His lawyers said that Holmes suffers from schizophrenia, a diagnosis confirmed by 20 doctors. But the expert witnesses called by the prosecution and the defense split on Holmes' legal sanity, and the jury ultimately declined to find him not guilty by reason of insanity.

Dr. Lynne Fenton, a psychiatrist who met with Holmes five times before the shooting, testified that he had frequent homicidal thoughts -- enough to justify her breaking doctor-patient confidentiality to call his mother.

Though Fenton said that she was concerned Holmes was shifting into a "schizophrenic state," she testified there was no clear evidence that he was an imminent threat to himself or others, so there was little she could do. He stopped seeing her after he dropped out of graduate school and his health insurance ran out. Fenton had offered to continue seeing him for free.

Later in the trial, the defendant's mother, Arlene Holmes, said that Dr. Fenton never informed her of her son's homicidal thoughts.

"We wouldn't be sitting here if she had told me that!" Holmes' mom sobbed on the stand. "I would have been crawling on all fours to get to him. She never said he was thinking of killing people. She didn't tell me. She didn't tell me. She didn't tell me!"

"Schizophrenia chose him. He didn't choose it, and I still love my son. I still do," his mother added. "I didn't realize that his loudest cry for help was his silence."

Robert and Arlene Holmes, parents of Aurora theater shooting suspect James Holmes, walk from the courtroom at the Arapahoe Co
RJ Sangosti via Getty Images
Robert and Arlene Holmes, parents of Aurora theater shooting suspect James Holmes, walk from the courtroom at the Arapahoe County Justice Center for a hearing in the 2012 Colorado movie theatre shooting case, July 22, 2014.

After the jurors found Holmes guilty in July, they were next asked to decide whether "mitigating factors" justified tempering their sentencing options. Holmes' family pleaded for his life, and the defense presented more than 50 mitigating factors -- including that all experts agree Holmes suffers from schizophrenia, is not faking his mental illness and would not have committed the crime if he had been healthy. On Aug. 3, the jury said it was not persuaded and declined to take the death sentence off the table.

The first two rounds of jury deliberations rested at least partially on facts, guided by legal language intended to aid their decision making. In weighing whether to impose the death penalty, however, the law asks jurors for an "individual reasoned moral judgment," the Denver Post wrote. 

"These decisions," Judge Samour told jurors before they retired to deliberate on Holmes' fate, "may well be the most important and serious decisions that you will ever be asked to make."

Colorado imposes the death penalty only in rare circumstances, having executed just one inmate in nearly 50 years, according to AP. In 2013, Gov. Hickenlooper granted a temporary reprieve to Nathan Dunlap, the state's longest-serving inmate on death row, who, like Holmes, suffers from mental health issues.

CONVERSATIONS