Mental illness issue surfaces in CO shooting case

August 10, 2012 - 3:35 AM

Colorado Shooting

This courtroom sketch shows suspect James Holmes, right, being escorted into court by a sheriff's deputy for a motions hearing for suspected theater shooter James Holmes in district court in Centennial, Colo., Thursday, Aug. 9, 2012. James Holmes has been charged in the shooting at the Aurora theater on July 20 that killed twelve people and injured more than 50. (AP Photo/Bill Robles, Pool) TV OUT

CENTENNIAL, Colo. (AP) — After defense lawyers disclosed their belief that the Colorado theater shooting suspect is mentally ill, victims and their families are questioning whether that argument will change the trial's focus to him rather than his actions.

"They keep talking about fairness for him," said Shane Medek, whose 23-year-old sister Micayla Medek died in the July 20 shootings. "It's like they're babying this dude."

James Holmes is accused of opening fire in a movie theater, killing 12 people and injuring 58 others. His lawyers disclosed their belief that he suffers from a mental illness during a suburban Denver court hearing Thursday, when nearly two dozen news organizations asked a judge to unseal case documents.

Defense attorney Daniel King argued that the seal and a sweeping gag order ensure fairness. He also told the judge that the defense team needed more information from prosecutors and investigators.

"We cannot begin to assess the nature and the depth of Mr. Holmes' mental illness until we receive full disclosure," he said in court.

Analysts expect the case to be dominated by arguments over Holmes' sanity, and the defense's revelation was the strongest confirmation so far that mental illness will be a key issue. A court document previously revealed that Holmes was seeing a school psychiatrist for unknown reasons.

Holmes, a 24-year-old former Ph.D. student at the University of Colorado, Denver, sat during the hearing with the familiar, dazed demeanor that he had in two previous court appearances. To people who have watched Holmes in the courtroom during those hearings and in photos and video, Holmes has appeared "seemingly out of it."

Miranda Norris, who was in a theater next to the one where the shooting occurred during a midnight showing of the latest Batman movie, saw him in person for the first time at the Thursday hearing. "He seems like he's crazy," the 17-year-old said.

"It doesn't give him the right to do what he did," added Chris Townsond, who attended the court hearing with a wounded victim. "I don't care how mentally damaged he is."

King said Holmes sought out university psychiatrist Lynne Fenton for help weeks before the shooting. A hearing was scheduled for Aug. 16 to establish they had a doctor-patient relationship.

Holmes has shown hints that he understood what's going on in the courtroom around him. He looked up at the ceiling and furrowed his brow as a woman in the spectator section disrupted the hearing Thursday. He glanced over at her when deputies escorted her out.

Medek said Holmes made eye contact with him. During previous hearings, Holmes had avoided looking at anyone in the courtroom.

"He gave me a little smirk, as well," Medek said. "I'm happy for that. 'Cause now he knows that I'm going to be looking at him as he sits there in court, or sits there all drugged up in a mental hospital. Or gets the injection."

Holmes' public defenders could argue he is not mentally competent to stand trial. It was the argument used for Jared Loughner, who pleaded guilty this week to a 2011 shooting in Arizona that killed six people and wounded 13 others, including then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.

If Holmes goes to trial and is convicted, his attorneys can try to stave off a possible death penalty by arguing he is mentally ill or argue he's innocent by reason of insanity. Prosecutors have yet to decide whether to seek the death penalty.

Few details are known about the case because of the seal and gag order issued by Chief District Judge William Sylvester. The Associated Press and 20 other news organizations on Thursday asked him to scale back the order, which bars the university from releasing details about Holmes.

Steven D. Zansberg, an attorney representing the news consortium, said state law allows judges to issue gag orders barring prosecutors and law enforcement from commenting.

Sylvester had said in issuing the order that he wanted to protect the county's investigation. But Aurora officials have cited the gag order in declining to speak about the city's response to the shootings, and even prosecution's arguments on the order is under seal.

The court documents include the case file, which makes it impossible for observers to understand arguments on motions that are referenced by number only. Those types of documents can shed light on how police say Holmes prepared for the shooting and rigged his apartment with explosives.

Gregory Moore, editor of The Denver Post, said before the hearing that the news organizations are trying to perform their watchdog role by making sure the investigation is conducted fairly.

The judge said he would rule on the matter by Monday. He did not say when he would respond to the request to unseal the court documents.