(AURORA, Colo.) — When the trial of James Holmes, accused of murdering 12 people and wounding 70 in an Aurora, Colorado, theater gets under way Monday, his fate will be decided by a jury that includes a retired Army ICU nurse, an explosions expert and a plumber.
One of the jurors used to be a victim’s advocate in Aurora, Colorado, the city where the theater shooting happened, but she left in 2010. Had she stayed in that job she would have found herself counseling traumatized survivors the early morning of July 20, 2012, instead of deciding the fate of the man accused of murdering 12 and injuring 70.
Holmes admits he committed the attack at the Century movie theater, but says he was having a “psychotic episode,” pleading guilty by reason of insanity.
Many of the victims’ relatives who came in from out of town to attend opening statements met Saturday night. One Texas family had a big garage sale, packed up a motor home and drove it to Colorado where they will stay so that their daughter, Jessie Ghawi, is remembered instead of the shooter.
“He is dead to me,” said Sandy Phillips, who said she will be wearing Jessie’s green scarf every day.
The stories of some of the jurors were reminders of one of the other notorious mass shootings that occurred in Colorado.
Juror 737 was close to Columbine High School shooters Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris until 8th grade, when their relationship faded. But he ended up taking a girl named Rachel Scott to prom their senior year. Just a week later, Scott was gunned down by Klebold and Harris on the school sidewalk.
Juror 535 told the court her niece was in the Columbine cafeteria when the pops sounded above her. Teacher Dave Sanders told her to run. She did. So did he, but he went toward the bullets which would eventually kill him.
Another potential juror was dismissed because she worried about her son, who was in a separate Colorado high school shooting just two years ago.
The 19 women and five men chosen for the jury were pared down from 9,000 original summonses. They will spend up to five months of their lives in a courtroom on what Arapahoe County District Attorney George Brauchler calls “a roller coaster ride in the most horrific haunted house you can imagine.”
The large number of women on the panel has some legal analysts predicting that if he is found guilty, Holmes has a better chance of being sentenced to life in prison than of being sent to death. But David Kaplan, who once ran the state public defender’s office said he doesn’t think so.
“Is there a typical woman? No. I don’t think they care a wit about gender,” Kaplan said. “The defense wanted people who would be open minded of their client’s mental condition.”
Holmes no longer has the orange hair and vacant stare seen when he was first brought into court shortly after the shooting. He has a new haircut and wears khakis and button-down shirts. He has also shaved his beard and has gained weight.
“I have been looking at Mr. Holmes,” prospective juror No. 733 said during questioning. “He looks like somebody walking down the street.”
“I see a man who’s on trial. Probably a little scared,” Juror No. 29 said. I don’t know if he knows everything that’s going on.”
Both jurors were scratched off the list.
In Colorado, the burden is on the prosecution to prove Holmes was not insane at the time of the shooting. The last prosecutor to meet that burden was Bob Grant, who saw murderer Gary David put to death in 1997. He said he expects Brauchler to methodically go through the killer’s last weeks, showing how he planned the shooting while at the same time making trips to the grocery store and sending text messages to his friends.
“Jurors don’t believe people can be sane one minute and not the next,” Grant said. “That doesn’t fly.”
Holmes faces 166 charges, so many it took the judge an hour and a half to read each one to his newly seated jury.
“Is it just too big?” public defender Tammy Brady asked the jurors.
A retired nurse who was chosen had an answer for her.
“It’s kind of like eating an elephant,” she said. “You take one bite at a time.”
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