Will James Holmes avoid death penalty for Colorado theater shooting?

The defense for James Holmes, accused of killing 12 during a mass shooting in July at a movie theater in Colorado, has a guilty plea on the table, if prosecutors agree not to seek the death penalty.

RJ Sangost/Denver Post/AP
James Holmes sits with defense attorney Tamara Brady during his arraignment in district court in Centennial, Colo., on March 12. On Wednesday, Holmes's defense attorneys revealed that the Colorado theater shooting suspect has offered to plead guilty and serve out his life in prison if prosecutors agree to not pursue the death penalty.

James Holmes, the suspect in last summer's movie theater shooting in Colorado, has offered to plead guilty and serve life without parole but only if prosecutors do not seek the death penalty.

Mr. Holmes's defense lawyers said their client is “willing to resolve the case to bring the proceedings to a speedy and definite conclusion for all involved,” in a routine scheduling document filed with the Arapahoe County District Court Wednesday.

The defendant faces 166 counts of murder, attempted murder, and other offenses. He is accused of killing 12 people and wounding 58 others when he opened fire in during a midnight showing of “The Dark Knight Rises” in Aurora, Colo., on July 20.

The court document said Holmes made his plea offer to the prosecution before his March 12 arraignment, but prosecutors have not responded to the offer because they may still opt to pursue the death penalty. By making Holmes’s plea public, his defense attorneys are increasing the pressure on the prosecutors to make a decision. Currently, the prosecution is set to announce a decision Monday.

“If the prosecution elects not to pursue the death penalty, then it is Mr. Holmes’ position that this case could be resolved on April 1,” the lawyers said in the document.

By accepting the plea agreement, the prosecution could avoid years of drawn-out court battles that could be emotionally stressful for victims. The trial is currently set for Aug. 5 and is scheduled to last four weeks, but the defense said in the filing that the trial would actually last much longer because of the large number of charges.

“Holmes can’t offer any more than he is offering,” Dan Recht, a Denver defense attorney who has been following the case, told the Denver Post. “The choice for the prosecution could not be clearer.”

Prosecutors will talk to victims’ families and survivors before announcing whether they will accept the plea. So far, members of that group appear to be divided about what should be done in the case.

“I don’t see his death bringing me peace,” Pierce O’Farrill, who was shot three times during the attack, told the Associated Press. “To me, my prayer for him was that he would spend the rest of his life in prison and hopefully, in all those years he has left, he could find God and ask for forgiveness himself.”

Dave Hoover, whose nephew A.J. Boik was killed in the theater attack, has mixed feelings about any potential plea deal, he said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times Wednesday.

“I loved my nephew dearly and we miss him every single day. I’m in favor of the death penalty and I’d like to see it in this case, but I’m not in favor of dragging this thing out. If it was over today, it would alleviate a lot of the pain and suffering,” Mr. Hoover said.

Other families are resolute in seeking the death penalty.

“He didn’t give 12 people the chance to plea bargain and say, ‘Let’s see if you’re going to shoot me or not,’ “ said Melisa Cowden, whose ex-husband was killed in the theater. “No. No plea bargain,” she said to the AP.

If the prosecution decides to pursue the death penalty, Holmes’s defense lawyer said in the document that he would likely pursue an insanity defense. “As previously stated in court, counsel for Mr. Holmes are still exploring a mental health defense, and counsel will vigorously present and argue any and all appropriate defenses at a trial or sentencing proceeding, as necessary,” the defense team said in the filing.

If Holmes is found to be insane, he could not be executed. The death penalty is uncommon in Colorado – currently, three men are on death row.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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