(CENTENNIAL, Colo.) — Arlene Holmes smiled at her son James as she sat down in the witness box Wednesday, stuttering as nerves caused her to misspell her middle name.
But she soon had the courtroom’s attention as she made a desperate bid to save his life as he faces the death penalty for the 2012 Aurora, Colorado massacre.
She revealed how three years ago, her life changed forever when an early morning phone call woke her and her husband and she was told that there had been a mass shooting in a Colorado movie theater.
At first, the Holmes thought their son had been shot; but they were shocked to find out he was actually the one with the guns.
“He never harmed anyone…ever…ever…until July 20, 2012,” Arlene Holmes said.
The defendant was convicted of killing 12 people and injuring 70 more that night. The jury is now in the penalty phase deciding whether or not the former neuroscience graduate student should receive life in prison without parole or death by lethal injection.
Arlene Holmes, who has only missed two days of the three-and-a-half month trial, appeared to blame the psychiatrist who saw her son seven times from March 2012 until about a month before the shooting.
Dr. Lynne Fenton was treating James Holmes for social anxiety when he abruptly left her care and quit the University of Colorado on June 11. Concerned, the psychiatrist called Arlene Holmes that same day to let her know that her son had quit school, but did not tell her that James had confided to her his thoughts of killing people three to four times a day.
“Do you wish she had?” asked public defender Rebekka Higgs.
“Of course,” Arlene Holmes’ voice broke. “We wouldn’t be sitting here if she would have told me that…He never said he wanted to kill people. She didn’t tell me. She didn’t tell me. She didn’t tell me.”
Reaction among the jury ranged from what appeared to be sadness to no emotion at all as home movies played showing a young defendant in happier times.
The gallery, which is often crowded, has been almost empty during this mitigation phase. Families who have shown up during this time bring books and crossword puzzles to keep their minds off of the humanization of the man many of them call a “monster.”
On Thursday, the jury will deliberate to decide whether the mitigating factors will prevail, meaning James Holmes would get life without parole. But if the jury believes the horrors of the murders outweigh his Americana upbringing, they will then enter a third phase during which they will decide if he should get the death penalty.
Arlene Holmes’ husband, Bob, testified before her, telling the court in a soft-spoken voice that their son was an “excellent kid.”
But District Attorney George Brauchler pointed out that Bob Holmes rarely emailed or called his son, and couldn’t remember that as an 8-year-old, his behavior was so severe that they took him to multiple therapy sessions.
When the jury found him guilty, the nine women and three men soundly rejected James Holmes’ insanity plea.
Still, Arlene Holmes hopes her testimony will sway them not to kill her son.
“Schizophrenia chose him. He didn’t choose it,” she told them. “And I still love my son. I still do.”
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