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Batman cinema shooter could face death despite mental health issues

James Holmes
James Holmes

Jurors who convicted Colorado killer James Holmes will decide whether the former graduate student will face the death penalty for the massacre of film-goers at a midnight Batman premiere.

They rejected defence arguments that Holmes, 27, was insane and driven to murder by delusions, to reach their guilty verdicts on 165 charges.

Holmes, who had been working towards his PhD in neuroscience, left 12 people dead and dozens of others wounded at the cinema in Aurora, a Denver suburb, in July 2012.

Wearing a blue dress shirt and khakis, he showed no visible reaction as the judge read the jury's verdict on all the counts against him.

Jurors at Arapahoe County District Court in Centennial, Colorado, took about 13 hours over a day and a half to review all the charges and the same panel must now decide whether Holmes should pay with his life.

On Wednesday, they will hear what is expected to be a month's worth of testimony over whether Holmes deserves the death penalty.

The verdict came almost three years after Holmes, dressed head-to-toe in body armour, slipped through the emergency exit of the darkened cinema and replaced the Hollywood violence of the movie The Dark Knight Rises with real human carnage.

His victims included two active-duty servicemen, a single mother, a man celebrating his 27th birthday and an aspiring broadcaster who had survived a mall shooting in Toronto. Several died shielding friends or loved ones.

The trial offered a rare glimpse into the mind of a mass shooter, as most are killed by police, kill themselves or plead guilty.

Prosecutors argued Holmes knew exactly what he was doing when he methodically gunned down strangers in the stadium-style venue, taking aim at those who fled. They painted him as a calculated killer who sought to assuage his failures in school and romance with a mass murder that he believed would increase his personal worth.

He snapped photos of himself with fiery orange hair and scrawled his plans for the massacre in a spiral notebook he sent his university psychiatrist just hours before the attack, all in a calculated effort to be remembered, prosecutors said.

The prosecution called more than 200 witnesses over two months, more than 70 of them survivors, including some who were missing limbs and using wheelchairs. They recalled the panic to escape the black-clad gunman.

The youngest to die was a six-year-old girl whose mother also suffered a miscarriage and was paralysed in the attack. Another woman who was nine months' pregnant at the time described her agonising decision to leave her wounded husband behind in the cinema to save their baby.

She later gave birth in the same hospital where he was in a coma. He can no longer walk and has trouble talking.

That Holmes was the lone gunman was never in doubt. He was arrested in the car park as survivors were still fleeing and warned police he had rigged his nearby apartment into a potentially lethal booby trap, which he hoped would divert first responders from the cinema.

His lawyers said he suffered from schizophrenia and was in the grip of a psychotic breakdown so severe that he was unable to tell right from wrong - Colorado's standard for insanity.

They said he was delusional even as he secretively acquired the three murder weapons - a shotgun, a handgun and an AR-15 rifle - while concealing his plans from friends and two worried psychiatrists in the months before the shooting.

Defence lawyers tried to present him as a once-promising student so crippled by mental illness that he could not reveal his struggles to anyone who might have helped. They called two psychiatrists, including a nationally known schizophrenia expert, who concluded Holmes was psychotic and legally insane.

But two state-appointed doctors found otherwise, giving evidence for prosecutors that no matter what Holmes' mental state was that night, he knew what he was doing was wrong.

Jurors watched nearly 22 hours of videotaped interviews showing Holmes talking in a flat, mechanical tone about his desire to kill strangers to increase his self-worth. Using short, reluctant answers, he said he felt nothing as he fired, blasting techno music through his earphones to drown out his victims' screams.

Prosecutors showed jurors Holmes' spiral notebook, where he scribbled a self-diagnosis of his "broken mind" and described his "obsession to kill" since childhood. The pages alternate between incoherent ramblings and elaborate plans for the killings, including lists of weapons to buy and diagrams showing which auditoriums in the cinema complex would allow for the most casualties.

Jurors saw an investigator's video of the shooting's aftermath. It showed bodies wedged between rows of seats and sprawled across aisles amid spent ammunition, spilled popcorn and blood.

During the sentencing phase, Holmes' lawyers will present so-called mitigating factors that they hope will save his life. They will probably include more evidence of mental illness and a sympathetic portrayal of his childhood.

Prosecutors will present so-called aggravating factors in support of the death penalty, including the large number of victims.

Outside the court, Jansen Young said she finally had closure with the guilty verdicts against Holmes.

She went to the cinema that night with her boyfriend Jonathan Blunk, 26, who threw himself in front of her to protect her. Mr Blunk, a father of two young children, was killed.

Ms Young described the ordeal as "unreal", saying she was at the cinema "just doing nothing" when someone tried to kill her. She expressed relief that the case was coming to a close.

Yousef Gharbi, who was shot in the head during the attack, said his body shuddered when he heard the first verdict outside the court.