James Holmes sits with defense attorney Tamara Brady during his arraignment in district court in Centennial, Colo., on Tuesday. PHOTO: RJ Sangosti, AP
CENTENNIAL, Colo. (USA Today) -- A judge presiding over the murder case of James Holmes entered a not guilty plea on his behalf Tuesday but said Holmes could enter a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity at a later date.
Holmes is charged with multiple counts of first-degree murder in the July 2012 deaths of 12 suburban Denver theatergoers. He was expected to plead not guilty by reason of insanity at an arraignment hearing, but his public defenders unsuccessfully sought a delay on entering a plea.
Holmes sat silently during the proceedings as defense attorney Dan King said he needs more time to prepare a plea. "We cannot ethically represent that we are ready to proceed," King said. "We're just not ready now."
Prosecutor Karen Pearson countered that Holmes' defense team has had plenty of time to prepare. "They've had eight months to get to this point," she said. "At some point this case simply has to move forward."
Arapahoe County Judge William Sylvester agreed, and ordered the case to move forward as Holmes rhythmically shook his head from side to side.
A plea of not guilty by reason of insanity would set in motion a court order to have the 25-year-old University of Colorado doctoral program dropout undergo state psychiatric evaluation to determine whether he is competent to stand trial. Holmes faces more than 160 counts of murder and attempted murder.
Prosecutors say a heavily armed Holmes, dressed in police assault gear, entered the rear of Aurora's Century 16 theater complex and began firing at a packed midnight theater crowd. Aside from the 12 killed, dozens more were wounded by shots fired from a military style assault rifle, semiautomatic shotgun and pistol. Several other patrons were injured as they tried to flee the theater.
Holmes' attorneys had said in previous court hearings that Holmes suffers from unspecified mental illness and had been treated by a University of Colorado psychiatrist before dropping out of the school's doctoral neuroscience program in May after failing a final exam.
A ruling by Sylvester on Monday clarified Holmes' options. Sylvester said that Holmes could be medicated by state psychiatrists to determine his competency and that he could also be given a polygraph examination as part of the state's evaluation to determine whether he was legally insane at the time of the July 20 shootings.
Veteran criminal attorneys say Holmes has little option other than the insanity plea, noting the overwhelming evidence presented by prosecutors at a January preliminary hearing in which they showed Holmes' actions leading up to the shootings, including weapons purchases and staking out the Aurora theater complex, and placed him at the scene where he was arrested by Aurora Police.
"There is no defense other than insanity,'' said Craig Silverman, a former chief deputy Denver prosecutor. "There's a significant chance he's suffering from a mental disease or defect that rendered him incapable of knowing right from wrong."
If Holmes is judged capable of standing trial, he could ultimately face the death penalty if convicted of murder. Arapahoe County prosecutors have not said whether they are seeking capital punishment.
Even so, Colorado has not carried out an execution since 1997. The appellate process could drag out a case for years. Silverman noted that convicted Aurora, Colo., killer Nathan Dunlap has been on death row since 1993.
Marcus Weaver, wounded in the arm during the theater shootings, says he "finds it hard to believe he could be insane." Weaver also said he supported Slyvester's decision to enter a plea on Holmes' behalf.
"It's just time to move forward," he says.
Strauss reported from McLean, Va.