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James Holmes hearing: At last, a chance for victims to testify

A weeklong hearing into the shooting attack in Aurora, Colo., began Monday, offering a potential window into the mindset of the suspect, James Holmes, and a chance for victims to unburden themselves of testimony.

By Daniel B. WoodStaff writer / January 7, 2013

This courtroom sketch shows James Holmes being escorted by a deputy as he arrives at preliminary hearing in district court in Centennial, Colo., on Monday, Jan. 7.

Bill Robles/AP

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Los Angeles

The preliminary hearing into the shooting attack in Aurora, Colo., last summer that left 12 people dead and 58 wounded opened Monday, offering a week-long window into details of the mass shooting at a midnight screening of “The Dark Knight Rises.”

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Most intriguingly, testimony at the hearing could shed light on the mindset of the alleged shooter, James Holmes, the former neuroscience graduate student whose hair was colored the same orange as that of the Batman movie villain the Joker.

Until now, most key documents in the case have been kept locked up, with very few released to the public, most heavily edited. Three days after the shooting on July 20 in the Denver suburb, District Judge William Sylvester ordered attorneys and investigators to refrain from speaking about the case publicly.

The purpose of the preliminary hearing in Centennial, Colo., is for Judge Sylvester to decide whether or not there is probable cause for a trial down the road. The hearing will feature testimony by witnesses who will be questioned by both the prosecution and defense. There will be no jury.

In the very first session Monday, a police officer, Jason Oviatt, described finding Mr. Holmes outside the theater in the moments after the shooting, saying the suspect was “very relaxed,” without “normal emotional responses to anything,” The New York Times reported.

But beyond making details of the attack public for the first time in the hearing, the procedure will serve several other functions, perhaps none more poignant than creating a potential emotional outlet for victims and their families who will have the chance to testify.

Doug Godfrey, professor of law from Chicago Kent, says he will be watching for how many eyewitnesses are put on the stand, as opposed to police. He says the amount of time given to the hearing – five days, which is very rare – is indicative of motivations that go beyond fact and legal findings.

“There has been a huge movement in criminal law toward giving victims a voice in what happens – which provides both some solace and closure,” he says. 

The hearing could also allow prosecutors and defense lawyers to assess the other’s strengths and weaknesses, potentially providing the backdrop for Holmes to negotiate and accept a plea agreement before trial that could see him avoid the death penalty.

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