CENTENNIAL, Colo. – The suspect in the Colorado movie theater killings returns to court this week for a hearing that might be the closest thing to a trial the victims and their families will get to see.
James Holmes, a former neuroscience graduate student, is charged with killing 12 people and injuring 70 by opening fire in a darkened theater in the Denver suburb of Aurora last July.
At a weeklong preliminary hearing starting today, prosecutors will outline their case against Holmes, the first official public disclosure of their evidence. The judge will then determine whether to send the case to trial.
Legal analysts say that evidence appears to be so strong that Holmes may well accept a plea agreement before trial. In such cases, the preliminary hearing can set the stage for a deal by letting each side assess the other’s strengths and weaknesses, said Laurie Levenson, a former federal prosecutor and now a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.
Preliminary hearings are often the first step to resolving the case, a mini-trial so both sides can see the writing on the wall, Levenson said.
Judges rarely throw out a case at this stage because prosecutors must meet only a standard of probable cause – much lower than the standard of beyond a reasonable doubt for a guilty verdict at trial, said Mimi Wesson, a professor of law at the University of Colorado Law School.
Holmes, who faces more than 160 counts including first-degree murder and attempted murder, could have waived his right to a preliminary hearing, allowing lawyers on both sides to prepare for trial. But defense lawyers sometimes go through with the hearing because it gives them a clearer picture of prosecution evidence.
In this case, I think it likely that the genuine purpose of the hearing would be information-gathering by the defense, Wesson said.
Court officials expect many survivors and family members of the dead to attend the preliminary hearing, along with scores of spectators and reporters.
District Judge William B. Sylvester has imposed a gag order on attorneys and investigators, and many court documents have been filed under seal, so little is known about Holmes’ path from promising graduate student to suspect in a mass murder.