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Colorado shooting: ‘No show of emotion’ as suspect appears in court

James Eagan Holmes, the suspect in the Colorado movie theater shooting, appeared bleary-eyed and dazed at a court hearing Monday in which he was advised of possible charges he may face.

Bleary-eyed and seemingly dazed, the suspect in the deadly Colorado movie theater shooting, James Eagan Holmes, made his first appearance in court Monday morning.

Dressed in maroon jailhouse garb and with his hair still colored a shocking orange, Mr. Holmes, who has been held in solitary confinement, did not speak at the brief hearing, in which he was advised of the possible charges he may face.

Cameras were allowed in the courtroom, giving TV viewers their first real glimpse of the man suspected of killing 12 and wounding 58 at a midnight showing of the new Batman movie in an Aurora theater early Friday morning.

“There was no show of emotion,” says Rob McCallum, public information officer for the Colorado Judicial Department, speaking via cell phone from the back of the courtroom.

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Holmes appeared with two court-appointed lawyers as the proceedings — known as an advisement where a suspect is advised of possible charges — took less than 15 minutes.

Chief Judge William Sylvester advised Holmes of his legal rights to a jury trial, as well as possible first-degree murder charges against him. The district attorney’s office normally has 72 hours to file charges, but in this case, it will have until Monday, July 30.  Most legal observers expect the death penalty to be on the table.

Holmes has been held in solitary confinement in an Arapahoe county facility since Friday and will not be allowed to post bond.

“What’s happening now involves questions for both the defense and prosecution,” says Daniel Filler, a criminal law expert and professor in the Earle Mack School of Law at Drexel University in Philadelphia.

First, he points out, the district attorney’s office needs to consider all the elements of filing death penalty charges. “This will involve both public and political implications,” he says, adding, “but it will also have implications on the way the case is litigated.” In death-penalty cases, he says it is safe to assume that there will be far more resources available to the defense

On the defense side, Professor Filler says the insanity defense will certainly be under consideration. But, he notes, Colorado is one of the tougher states in terms of using what is often a controversial defense.

The Colorado insanity defense clause has two requirements, he says. First, the defendant must have been suffering from a genuine mental illness at the time of the crime. “It cannot be something that was drug-induced,” for example, he notes.

Next, he says the defendant must be able to know right from wrong.

“This is a very tough standard because even in the case of extremely mentally ill individuals, most would know that picking up a gun and shooting people in a movie theater was not a right thing to do,” he says.

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As a legal matter, the initial court appearance has little significance other than to show the public that the man responsible for a widely covered crime is being brought to justice, says Anne Bowen Poulin, professor of law at Villanova University School of Law in Philadelphia.

The Aurora shooting, a highly emotional case with multiple victims, evokes the same public feelings as cases like the Long Island railroad shooting in 1993, Columbine in 1999, and other such cases going all the way back to 1966, when the acts of former Marine Charles Whitman, the Texas Tower sniper who killed 16 people at the University of Texas, Austin,  caused a ripple of fear, she points out.

Highly public cases such as this typically spotlight the thorny social issues underlying defense pleas that might involve mental illness, she says.

“This case, and those like it, raise questions about mental illness and responsibility. Those questions are likely to play out in the case against James Holmes as the court determines whether he is competent to stand trial and his attorneys determine whether he can and should raise an insanity defense,” she says via e-mail.

Probably the greatest significance of the hearing Monday is that it gives the public the chance to start fleshing out their individual and collective impressions of the defendant. Members of the public will examine Holmes’ demeanor in his public appearances to try to decide whether he is mentally ill and to make sense of these senseless acts, she says.

These cases become a venue for the public to root for the good versus evil in our society, says Filler, adding, “there are many players, just as in a movie, but of course, here they are all real,” and the stakes are so much higher.