CENTENNIAL, Colo. — Aurora police Officer Jason Oviatt’s stare — it was a telling moment in a week marked by tense and often tearful testimony.
The patrolman who arrested murder defendant James Holmes was wrapping up his testimony in the Colorado movie theater shooting trial Thursday when the judge called attorneys for both sides to the bench.
Oviatt had already glared at Holmes at least 20 times during his hourlong testimony on the witness stand. The bench conference brought a pause in the proceedings — and an opportunity.
From his seat about 10 feet away, Oviatt turned to Holmes and began to stare. For a full minute, the dark-eyed, square-jawed officer locked in on the admitted gunman and didn’t flinch.
Holmes swiveled slightly in his chair, as he often has during this first week of his capital murder trial. If he reacted to Oviatt in any other way, it wasn’t visible to those seated in the courtroom gallery. At the defense table, Holmes is tethered to the floor by a harness and cable.
All five patrol officers who testified Thursday had to point Holmes out in court for the record. A few occasionally looked at Holmes, but none with the same directness and intensity as Oviatt.
An Aurora Police Department spokeswoman said Oviatt wouldn’t be able to comment on his testimony.
“We can’t say anything or draw attention to the case,” Officer Diana Cooley said.
The court issued a strict gag order restricting information shortly after Holmes was arrested in July 2012.
Tom Teves, whose son Alex died in the theater, offered a possible explanation of the motivation behind Oviatt’s big stare.
“They’ve had to be quiet for close to three years because of the gag order,” Teves said. “It shows the passion and the pain the Aurora Police Department has had over this guy.”
The defendant, who has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity, admits he was the shooter who killed 12 people and injured 70 others during a midnight showing of the Batman movie “The Dark Knight Rises.” Holmes would be committed indefinitely to a state mental hospital if the jury finds he was insane. His attorneys contend he was so plagued with schizophrenia that he didn't know right from wrong.
The trial, which is expected to last up to five months, resumes testimony on Monday. The jury concluded its first week Thursday afternoon on a grim note. Graphic crime scene photos of the 10 victims who died in the theater were entered into evidence and briefly displayed in the courtroom.
None of the victims were in their seats. Instead, they were found between theater rows and on aisle steps. Signs of the chaos — spent ammo, spilled snacks, abandoned purses, cellphones and shoes — were all around them.
“It was a just snapshot in time that was frozen,” Detective Matthew Ingui testified. “It was horrible. The smell of popcorn. The smell of fear and death in the room.”
On July 20, 2012, Oviatt was one of the first officers to arrive at the back of the Century 16 movie theater building shortly after the shooting call went out at about 12:38 a.m.
In court Thursday, Holmes watched as Oviatt used a stick to point out on a projected photo where he was and describe what he saw when he arrived on the scene.
“I was following a trail of blood at the time and looking for a way to get in the theater,” Oviatt told the jury. “We thought someone was in the theater shooting.”
But Oviatt and another responding officer were quickly distracted by someone they initially believed was an officer standing beside a white sedan behind the building. The individual was dressed head to toe in riot-type gear, but Oviatt said something wasn’t quite right.
“The person wasn’t acting like a cop,” said Oviatt, explaining that the individual in the body armor had no sense of urgency.
At that point, Oviatt and his colleague ordered the individual to put their hands in the air, then to lie on the ground, where Oviatt put the person in handcuffs. All the officers who testified said the suspect didn't resist arrest or attempt to flee. Oviatt described the suspect as being vacant.
“By vacant I mean not displaying any outward emotion or outward engagement of what’s going on,” the officer said.
On cross-examination, lawyer Daniel King’s questions played to the defense’s argument that Holmes’ behavior that night was a result of his mental illness.
Half of Thursday’s testimony was from officers describing the chaotic scene behind the theater where Holmes was arrested and the most severely injured were whisked away in police cars when ambulances couldn’t be had.
“Some were crawling,” testified Officer Justin Grizzle. “They were covered in blood. I could see gaping holes.”
Police were so busying ferrying the wounded to hospitals that they couldn’t haul Holmes to police headquarters. Instead, officers stripped him of his body armor and clothing and left him handcuffed in a squad car in his underwear and a T-shirt. Oviatt stood guard outside the car.
“I was concerned that they were going to put one of the victims in the car with him,” said Oviatt, pausing to compose his emotions as he recalled that it nearly happened. “I had to tell them that this is the suspect.”
Holmes, meanwhile, sat in the backseat “sort of taking it all in,” Oviatt said.
“He would sort of look around when a car would go speeding off or when someone would scream loud,” the officer said.
Jason Sickles is a reporter for Yahoo News. Follow him on Twitter (@jasonsickles).