Jury selection begins in long-awaited Colorado theater shooting case

A courtroom sketch showing accused murderer James Holmes (L) sitting with Arapahoe County Public Defender Tamara Brady (C) at the Arapahoe District Courthouse in Centennial, Colorado, USA, 20 January 2015. (EPA/JEFF KANDYBA)
A courtroom sketch showing accused murderer James Holmes (L) sitting with Arapahoe County Public Defender Tamara Brady (C) at the Arapahoe District Courthouse in Centennial, Colorado, USA, 20 January 2015. (EPA/JEFF KANDYBA)
Jason Sickles
A courtroom sketch showing accused murderer James Holmes (L) sitting with Arapahoe County Public Defender Tamara Brady (C) at the Arapahoe District Courthouse in Centennial, Colorado, USA, 20 January 2015. (EPA/JEFF KANDYBA)
A courtroom sketch showing accused murderer James Holmes (L) sitting with Arapahoe County Public Defender Tamara Brady (C) at the Arapahoe District Courthouse in Centennial, Colorado, USA, 20 January 2015. (EPA/JEFF KANDYBA)

CENTENNIAL, Colo. — An almost unrecognizable James Holmes appeared in court on Tuesday in the death penalty case in which he is accused of a murderous rampage at a Colorado movie theater.

Holmes — who since his July 2012 arrest has sported wild orange hair and later, mutton-chop sideburns — is now clean-cut, and he appeared in civilian clothes during an introductory hearing before jury selection, which began Tuesday afternoon.

Several courtroom observers did a double take before they realized it was Holmes sitting at the defense table. His dark hair was neatly trimmed and was wearing pleated khaki pants, a striped button-down blue shirt, a charcoal sports jacket and tortoiseshell glasses. It was the first time Holmes has appeared in court in something other than a jail jumpsuit. He wore no cuffs on his wrists, but a hidden cable kept him tethered to the floor.

No cameras were allowed in the courtroom, but a sketch artist was present. Those images are expected later.

Before the hearing got under way, Holmes — who has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity to one of the worst mass killings in U.S. history — at times rocked in his chair, smiled, conversed with his court-appointed lawyers and glanced at reporters in the room.

The defendants fate ultimately hangs on whether the jury thinks he was sane or insane at the time of the killings.

The process to decide who those dozen jurors will be begins Tuesday afternoon, when the first wave of an unprecedented 9,000 prospective jurors reports to the Arapahoe County Justice Center. Judge Carlos Samour said Tuesday morning that he now expects the pool to include approximately 7,000 people, because some have already been dismissed due to conflicts and other summonses that were undeliverable.

The start of jury selection comes two and a half years after Holmes snuck into a suburban Denver movie theater on July 20, 2012, and opened fire on 421 people watching the midnight showing of the Batman film “The Dark Knight Rises.” Twelve people were killed and 70 were injured.

The case has rekindled debate about the death penalty, gun control and executing people who are mentally ill. Lawyers feuding about his mental evaluations have led to lengthy delays in the trial.

Alex Teves, 24, earned his master's degree in counseling a month before he was killed in the July 20, 2012, theater shooting. (Family photo)
Alex Teves, 24, earned his master's degree in counseling a month before he was killed in the July 20, 2012, theater shooting. (Family photo)

“Its been put off way too long,” said Caren Teves, whose son, 24-year-old Alex Teves, was among those killed. “Were glad its starting, but its going to be extremely difficult. Were asking for sensitivity and compassion for all the victims.”

Picking an impartial jury won’t happen quickly. Given the number of victims, people in the community affected by the tragedy and media attention, Judge Samour decided to summon the largest jury pool in Colorado history. Nearly one in 50 Arapahoe County registered voters had a chance of being selected.

They will arrive in groups of 250 twice a day for the next month. In Courtroom 201, Judge Samour will outline the intricacies of the case and demand that the proceedings be kept in confidence. Then the prospective jurors will be asked to complete an 18-page questionnaire.

“We realize that the questionnaire is lengthy and will take time to complete,” Judge Samour will tell them, according to his prepared remarks in the court file. “However, you significantly increase your chances of having to return if you do not answer the questions as completely and accurately as possible.”

The questions have not been made public, but in his prepared remarks, Judge Samour tells prospective jurors to “please read the explanations of law and the questions carefully.”

Colorado law is unique in that it is one of the few states that require the prosecution to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a defendant was not insane at the time of the crime.

The district attorney, who is seeking the death penalty, has presented evidence that Holmes meticulously planned the massacre.

If the jury determines Holmes was insane, he would be acquitted and sent indefinitely to a state mental hospital. But if they find that he was sane, he could be sentenced to death or life in prison without parole.

Alex Tevess mother can’t bring herself to say her sons killer’s name. But with so much of the case centered on the complexities of the defendants psychological makeup, Caren Teves wants people to remember that there are two sides to the proceedings.

“This is J.H. vs. the people, and my son is the people. My family is the people,” she told Yahoo News. “That person does not own this trial; there is justice to be had in this trial. Its not just that one person involved, theres the people as well.”

In addition to Alex Teves, the defendant is also charged with the murders of Jon Blunk, 26; Alexander Boik, 18; Jesse Childress, 29; Gordon Cowden, 51; Jessica Ghawi, 24; John Larimer, 27; Matt McQuinn, 27; Micayla Medek, 23, Veronica Moser-Sullivan, 6; Alex Sullivan, 27; and Rebecca Wingo, 32.

The 12 who were killed at the movie theater. Click image to open gallery. Top (L to R): Matt McQuinn, Alex Teves, Micayla Medek, Jesse Childress, Jon Blunk, Jessica Ghawi. Bottom (L to R): AJ Boik, John Larimer, Alex Sullivan, Gordon Cowden, Rebecca Wingo, and Veronica Moser-Sullivan. (Photo combination by Yahoo News, AP Photos)
The 12 who were killed at the movie theater. Click image to open gallery. Top (L to R): Matt McQuinn, Alex Teves, Micayla Medek, Jesse Childress, Jon Blunk, Jessica Ghawi. Bottom (L to R): AJ Boik, John Larimer, Alex Sullivan, Gordon Cowden, Rebecca Wingo, and Veronica Moser-Sullivan. (Photo combination by Yahoo News, AP Photos)

Prospective jurors who arent excluded because of their answers to the written questions will be called back for individual and group questioning from mid-February through May. The final 12 jurors and 12 alternates are not likely to be seated until late May. Opening arguments and the remainder of the trial could last until October.

“We are just going to take it one day at a time during the next six to eight months,” shooting victim Marcus Weaver wrote on his Facebook page over the weekend. “Then, when it is my time to testify, I will be a wreck, but its my duty, my piece of the puzzle, but definitely emotional, being face to face with ‘the shooter,’ then having to relive it.”

Weaver, 44, was in the fifth row of the dark theater when the heavily armed assailant burst in and began firing. Weaver’s right shoulder was peppered with gunshot pellets. Wingo, one of his best friends, was sitting beside him, and died in the attack.

Jury selection, Weaver said, “shows we are moving forward — finally.”

“I would not be a normal, rational human being if I did not have any emotions, butterflies in my stomach or feelings about the trial starting,” Weaver said.

(This story has been updated several times since its original posting.)

Jason Sickles is a reporter for Yahoo News. Follow him on Twitter (@jasonsickles).