US Batman shooter 'relaxed, detached'

Last updated 09:02 08/01/2013

Accused movie theater gunman, James Holmes heard a policeman describe the scene inside the suburban Denver movie theater the night of a massacre that killed 12 people. Deborah Gembara reports.

James Holmes
Reuters
ACCUSED SHOOTER: James Holmes.
Colorado Batman movie shooting
Isaac Pacheco wears a Batman shirt honoring his friend Alex Sullivan, who was killed in the Colorado movie killings.
Batman shooting
Reuters
MEMORIAL: Flowers and notes have been laid outside the Aurora cinema where 12 people were shot dead.

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US police officers who arrested James Holmes after the Colorado movie theatre massacre last year say he was clad in body armour and unusually relaxed, but fidgety at times.

Holmes is accused of tossing two gas canisters and then opening fire during a midnight showing of the Batman movie The Dark Knight Rises on July 20, killing 12 people and wounding dozens.

Holmes didn't resist arrest behind the theatre and volunteered that his apartment had been booby trapped, the officers testified during the opening of a hearing in which US prosecutors began laying out their case against the former neuroscience graduate student.

Officer Jason Obiatt said Holmes seemed "very, very relaxed" and didn't seem to have "normal emotional reactions" to things.

"He seemed very detached from it all," he said.

When Obiatt first saw Holmes in his gear standing next to his car behind the theatre, he thought he was a fellow officer but then realised Holmes was standing still, and not rushing toward the theatre.

Obiatt pointed his gun at him, handcuffed him and searched him. He said he found two knives and a semi-automatic handgun on top of Holmes' car.

Obiatt said an ammunition round also fell out of Holmes' pocket and he found another one on the ground.

Officer Aaron Blue said Holmes was fidgeting around after he and Obiatt put him in a patrol car, prompting them to stop and search Holmes again. They were worried they might have missed something because of Holmes' bulky outfit.

The preliminary hearing is expected to last all week. It will allow the judge to determine whether the prosecution's case is strong enough to warrant a trial but it's rare for a judge not to order a trial if a case gets this far.

Whatever details emerge at the preliminary hearing, they will do so in a nation that has changed dramatically since the July 20 attack that pushed the problems of gun violence and mental illness into the forefront before receding.

That debate reignited last month when a gunman killed 20 children and six adults at a primary school in Newtown, Connecticut, spawning calls for better psychiatric care, tougher gun laws and the arming of teachers.

Holmes is charged with more than 160 counts, including murder and attempted murder.

Legal analysts say that evidence appears to be so strong that Holmes may well accept a plea agreement before trial.

In such cases, the preliminary hearing can set the stage for a deal by letting each side assess the other's strengths and weaknesses, said Laurie Levenson, a former federal prosecutor and now a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.

They "are often the first step to resolving the case, a mini-trial so both sides can see the writing on the wall," she said.

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In general, plea agreements help prosecutors avoid costly trials, give the accused a lesser sentence like life in prison rather than the death penalty, and spare the victims and their families from the trauma of going through a lengthy trial.

At this stage, prosecutors must only meet a "probable cause" standard - much lower than the "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard for a guilty verdict, said Mimi Wesson, a professor of law at the University of Colorado Law School.

Many of the survivors and family members of the dead attended the hearing.

The hearing is the first extensive public disclosure of the evidence against Holmes. Three days after the shooting, District Judge William Sylvester forbade attorneys and investigators from discussing the case publicly, and many court documents have been under seal.

It took this long to get to the preliminary hearing because lawyers have been debating what physical evidence should be made available to one side or the other, whether a psychiatrist who met with Holmes is barred from testimony by doctor-patient privilege, who was responsible for leaks to the media, and other issues.

Police say Holmes, now 25, had stockpiled weapons, ammunition, explosives and body armour. He was a first-year student in a PhD neuroscience program at the University of Colorado, Denver, but he failed a year-end exam and withdrew in June, authorities have said.

The shootings happened six weeks later.

Federal authorities have said Holmes entered the theatre with a ticket and is believed to have propped open a door, slipped out to his car and returned with his weapons. Police arrested him outside the theatre shortly after the shootings ended.

Holmes' mental health could be a significant issue - and possibly a contentious one - in the preliminary hearing.

His attorneys have told the judge Holmes is mentally ill, but they have not said whether they plan to employ an insanity defence.

He had seen a university psychiatrist, and his lawyers have said he tried to call the psychiatrist nine minutes before the killing began.

Defence lawyers have said they plan to call at least two people, described as "lay witnesses," who could testify about Holmes' mental health.

Prosecutors asked Sylvester to block the witnesses, but he refused.

- AP

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