James Holmes, suspect in the Aurora, Colorado, movie theater rampage on July 20, 2012, will return to court on Monday for a weeklong preliminary hearing. Holmes is accused of attacking a premiere showing of Dark Knight Rises with a plethora of weaponry, killing 12 and wounding 58 innocent bystanders.
Prosecutors will outline their case against Holmes before state District Judge William B. Sylvester decides whether the evidence is sufficient to send the gunman to trial. After Sylvester imposed a gag order on the case following Holmes' arrest, this will be the first time the public will get an "officially sanctioned look" at much of the evidence against him.
According to some legal analysts, the evidence against Holmes appears to be so clear-cut that he may accept a plea agreement rather than go to trial. Laurie Levenson, a Loyola Law School professor, explains that preliminary hearings let parties assess the strength of the other's case. 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 told The Guardian.
The judge is exceptionally unlikely to throw out the case at the preliminary hearing stage due to a lower standard of guilt – "probable cause" rather than "beyond a reasonable doubt" – required to move forward with the case. Holmes faces more than 160 charges including multiple counts of first-degree and attempted murder. Rather than waiving his right to a hearing, Holmes has decided to move forward with it. That may indicate "the genuine purpose of the hearing" to be "information-gathering by the defense," another law professor indicated.
USA Today reports that defense attorneys have alleged Holmes suffers from mental illness – perhaps preparing for an insanity defense. An insanity defense is "unlike the mental competency argument used for Jared Loughner," who killed six people (including a federal judge) and wounded 13 others, including then Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in January 2011. In July, Holmes was forced into a face guard after spitting frequently at corrections officers.
Meanwhile, prosecutors will be unveiling new evidence: 911 calls and 30 hours of unspecified videos from the night of the shooting, much or all of it recorded from inside the Century 16 theater. Over 1,500 emails to or from Holmes were released by the University of Colorado in December, but most of them were either heavily redacted or contained irrelevant information. Any and all communications between Holmes and the campus psychiatrist were sealed, the defense arguing it violated Holmes’ privacy in that case.
The Century 16 theater where Holmes killed his victims is set to re-open on January 17, sparking a wave of criticism from the victims' family members invited to a memorial service including a movie on that date. "It was a killing field. It was a place of carnage and they've not once told us what their plans are for the theater other than that they're reopening it," Sandy Phillips, mother of victim Jessica Ghawi, said. The victims' families have alleged theater management is unwilling to meet with them unless there is a lawyer present.
Monday's hearing comes in the wake of another mass shooting in Aurora: on Saturday, area resident and gunman Sonny Archuleta barricaded himself in his house and fired upon police after killing 3 people in his Aurora townhouse. Archuleta will not get a hearing: he was killed by a SWAT team during the incident.