Focus on victims as jurors get theater shooting case

Lonnie Phillips, Sandy Phillips
Lonnie and Sandy Phillips, whose daughter Jessica Ghawi was killed in the 2012 Aurora movie theatre massacre, talk with members of the media and display a T-shirt memorializing the twelve people killed in the attack, outside the Arapahoe County District Court following the day of closing arguments in the trial of theater shootings defendant James Holmes, in Centennial, Colo., Tuesday July 14, 2015. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)

CENTENNIAL, Colo. (AP) — One after the other, their faces flashed on an overhead screen: the aspiring sports broadcaster, the caring dad, the smiling 6-year-old girl a prosecutor described as “forever our kindergartner.”

Photos of the 12 people who died in the Colorado theater shooting were the last images jurors saw before starting deliberations Wednesday over whether the gunman, James Holmes, was legally insane when he opened fire on a crowded midnight movie premiere.

In closing arguments Tuesday, District Attorney George Brauchler kept the focus on the shooting’s heavy toll on unsuspecting victims, weaving their stories into a larger narrative that tried to show Holmes was legally sane when he carried out the attack almost three years ago.

But defense attorney Daniel King presented Holmes as a kind of victim himself, of schizophrenia so consuming he was unable to tell right from wrong when he slipped into the auditorium, injuring another 70 before his gun jammed and he surrendered. The images King showed jurors were of Holmes looking dazed and sullen with fiery orange hair after the July 20, 2012 attack.

“The mental illness caused this to happen. Only the mental illness caused this, and nothing else,” King said.

Brauchler and King made their final appeals to jurors Tuesday before handing over the case.

Defense attorneys are asking for a verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity, which would send Holmes to the state mental hospital for an indefinite commitment. Prosecutors say Holmes should be convicted of murder and executed.

“That guy was sane beyond a reasonable doubt, and he needs to be held accountable for what he did,” Brauchler said.

Many of the victims and family members in the courtroom wept as Brauchler showed their photos. Josh Nowlan, who was shot in the leg and walks with a cane, covered his eyes with his hands and shook.

Jurors showed no emotion but craned their heads toward the gallery when Brauchler said one badly wounded victim, Caleb Medley, was seated there in his wheelchair. Medley was shot in the head, can no longer walk and struggles to speak.

“They came in hoping to see the story of a hero dressed in black, someone who would fight insurmountable odds for justice,” Brauchler said. “Instead, a different figure appeared by the screen. … He came there with one thing in his heart and his mind, and that was mass murder.”

King urged the jurors to set aside the deeply emotional impact of the massacre.

Holmes, now 27, does not dispute that he was the lone gunman who attacked the theater but his lawyers say he was in the grip of a psychotic breakdown and couldn’t tell right from wrong— Colorado’s standard for an insanity verdict.

“When he stepped into that theater, the evidence is clear that he could not control his thoughts, that he could not control his actions, and that he could not control his perceptions,” King said.

The prosecutor, meanwhile, methodically reviewed Holmes’ elaborate preparations, the horrific attack and finally his decision to surrender when he saw police closing in outside the theater.

Holmes sat impassively at the defense table, often looking at one of the three video screens in the courtroom.

Both sides are trying to help jurors make sense of thousands of pieces of evidence and more than 250 witnesses who testified in the 11-week trial. With that information, it will be up to the jury to decide whether prosecutors met their burden of proving Holmes was legally sane.

The 12 jurors who will decide the case include nine women and three men. The seven alternate jurors won’t participate in the deliberations but must remain available in case one of the other jurors can’t go on.

“We’re praying the jury does the right thing, praying to God,” said Rena Medek, whose daughter, Micayla Medek, died in the shooting. She attended the trial daily with Micayla’s grandmother, Marlene Knobbe.

“Just because the trial is over, it’s not over for us,” said Sandy Phillips, whose daughter, Jessica Ghawi, was also killed. “It’s never going to be over for the 12 families who lost their loved ones in that theater.”

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