Why it’s taken so long to bring Colorado theater shooter James Holmes to trial

Jason Sickles
A view inside Courtroom 201 where the Colorado theater shooting trial will take place this year. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley, Pool)
A view inside Courtroom 201 where the Colorado theater shooting trial will take place this year. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley, Pool)

When the first potential juror in Case No. 12CR1522 arrives at the Arapahoe County courthouse on Tuesday, two years, six months and a day will have passed since the defendant terrorized a packed Denver-area movie theater with guns and tear gas.

That’s nearly three times the 12-month timetable the Supreme Court of Colorado recommends for judges to process felony criminal cases.

“That means from arrest to sentencing in one year,” said Greg Hurley, an expert on judicial administration. But “there’s going to be some of these cases where that just can’t happen.”

The State of Colorado v. James Eagan Holmes is unquestionably one of them.

Since Holmes gave himself up to police minutes after killing 12 people and wounding 70 others at a midnight screening of the Batman movie “The Dark Knight Rises” in July 2012, there have been:

• Five trial dates
• Two judges
• A request for a third judge (denied)
• Two sanity evaluations
• More than 1,700 motions, notices, orders and other documents filed

“I’m relieved that it’s finally starting,” said Pierce O’Farrill, who survived but still has a .40-caliber bullet lodged in his left arm.

Holmes’ public defenders admit he was the gunman but argue the former neuroscience graduate student was in the throes of a psychotic episode at the time.

District Attorney George Brauchler contends the attack was calculated, alleging the 27-year-old spent months stockpiling his arsenal.

A gag order prevents anyone in the case from speaking publicly. The defense reportedly said the prosecution rejected a plea offer early on, but the district attorney’s office has never confirmed any  possible deal.

After consulting with survivors and victims’ families, prosecutors announced in April 2013 that they would seek the death penalty. For Holmes, Brauchler said, “justice is death.”

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)

Rampage killers rarely go to trial. Most of the perpetrators commit suicide or are killed by police at the scene.

Still, even the trials of other well-known murder defendants — Timothy McVeigh, O.J. Simpson, Jeffrey Dahmer and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, to name a few — started in under 24 months.

“From being fairly familiar with notorious trials, two and half years for the James Holmes case does not surprise me,” said Hurley, an analyst with the National Center for State Courts, a nonprofit that helps with improving judicial administration.

Hurley, a former criminal defense attorney, said the Colorado case is complicated by the possible death penalty, Holmes’ plea of not guilty by insanity, the number of victims, international media interest, security concerns and the effort to find an impartial jury. Quarrels and delays over the court-ordered psychiatric exams have taken up nearly a year.

“These things exponentially expand out, and that’s why the extra time is required,” Hurley told Yahoo News.

Theater shooting victim Pierce O'Farrill still has a bullet lodged in his left arm. (AP File Photo)
Theater shooting victim Pierce O'Farrill still has a bullet lodged in his left arm. (AP File Photo)

Extra money, too. Aside from salaries (which are largely fixed), examples of court expenditures to date: $405,000 on security, $20,000 for printing, $5,950 for 10 additional juror chairs, $3,500 in postage and $900 for high-speed scanners to process juror questionnaires.

What is thought to be a national-record-setting 9,000 summonses have been sent to prospective jurors.

“Dealing with those 9,000 people and the administrative issues that go along with that is going to take an unmerciful amount of time,” Hurley said.

Opening arguments aren’t expected until late May or early June at the earliest.

“It’s going to be a long process,” said O’Farrill, who will testify for the prosecution.

O’Farrill was sitting near the front of the theater when Holmes stormed through an emergency exit door, firing.

“I got shot three times,” he said. “The really bad one, he shot me at point-blank range. It somehow missed my head and hit my arm instead. So I’m thankful for another day.

“I know going through the trial is going to take me back to that night, and it’s something I’m prepared to do.”

The 30-year-old said he’ll appear in court on his day to testify but has no interest in immersing himself in the proceedings.

“I was blessed to find forgiveness after the shooting,” said O’Farrill, a devout Christian. “For me, going to the trial is not really part of my healing.”

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