Prosecutors on Monday filed two sets of first-degree murder charges against James Eagan Holmes for each of the of 12 deaths that occurred during a theater massacre in Aurora, Colo., on July 20, effectively laying the groundwork for a fallback strategy in the event Holmes’ lawyers successfully mount an insanity defense.
The dual charges — “murder with deliberation” and killing with “extreme indifference to the value of human life” — give the jury a choice of two avenues to a potential death penalty sentence under Colorado law, NBC’s Pete Williams reported.
Under state law, murder with deliberation is equivalent to premeditated murder, while the “extreme indifference” charge covers actions that demonstrate “an attitude of universal malice.”
Holmes, who appeared briefly in court Monday morning to hear the charges against him, also was charged with 116 counts of attempted murder, as well as one count of illegal possession of explosives, according to court documents.
A former University of Colorado graduate student, Holmes is accused of carrying out the bloody attack on moviegoers at the midnight premiere of “A Dark Knight Rises” after wiring his apartment with enough explosives to have leveled the building if they had detonated.
The trial could turn on questions of Holmes’ state of mind, Craig Silverman, a former chief deputy district attorney in Denver, told the Associated Press.
“I don’t think it’s too hard to predict the path of this proceeding,” he said. “This is not a whodunit. … The only possible defense is insanity.”
According to the law in Colorado, defendants are not legally liable for their acts if they cannot differentiate between right and wrong, the report said. However, “Care should be taken not to confuse such mental disease or defect with moral obliquity, mental depravity or passion growing out of anger, revenge, hatred or other motives, and kindred evil conditions,” the law stipulates, the AP said.
The court schedule suggests that Holmes will not enter a plea until at least the week of Nov. 12, NBC News’ correspondent Mike Taibbi reported. The timing allows for deliberation on how much evidence will remain sealed from public view, including communications between Holmes and a psychiatrist at the University of Colorado.
Last week, law enforcement gained possession of a package that Holmes apparently mailed to the psychiatrist, Lynne Fenton, before the attack. Unconfirmed reports said that the package, which had not yet been delivered to Fenton, contained a notebook with writings and illustrations of shootings.
Holmes’ attorneys said Fenton had been treating their client and that all communication should remain private under doctor-patient privilege. News organizations have asked the judge to unseal the contents of the package and communications between Holmes and Fenton.
Not until after the plea is entered would the prosecution announce whether it will pursue the death penalty for Holmes if he is convicted of first-degree murder. Prosecutors have said they would seek input from victims before making that decision.
The minimum sentence for first-degree murder in Colorado is life in prison, Taibbi reported