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Tough prosecutor mulls death penalty for alleged Colorado shooter

James Holmes, left, appears in Arapahoe County District Court with defence attorney Tamara Brady on July 23, 2012, in Centennial, Colo.

RJ Sangosti/The Associated Press

As prosecutors mulled seeking the death penalty and victims' families buried the dead or kept vigil alongside the injured, the alleged mass murderer who styled himself as The Joker awaited his fate in protective solitary confinement in Colorado.

Prosecutors have 60 days to decide whether they will seek the death penalty in the case. The killings at a midnight screening of the new Batman movie has shocked America and more than meets Colorado requirements for capital punishment, including multiple victims and at least one being a child. Add to the mix a no-nonsense prosecutor, Carol Chambers, with a long reputation for seeking the death penalty whenever possible, although she has said she will consult with the victims' families before making a final decision.

James Holmes, 24, the drop-out from a doctoral neuroscience program who appeared in court Monday with wild, orange-dyed hair, apparently lived alone surrounded by Batman posters and memorabilia as he ordered an arsenal of assault weapons and enough ammunition to kill thousands. His unruly mop angered some but his defence lawyers may have had little time to arrange a less provocative appearance.

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"The killer may have thought he was The Joker," suggested Jack Levin, co-director of the Brudnick Center on Violent and Conflict at Northeastern University, who has studied and written about mass murderers and serial killers.

"This guy was against all humanity, he wanted to go down in infamy," Mr. Levin said in an interview. "Even crazy people can hope to achieve infamy," he said, adding: "It was very peculiar to see the defendant nod off and then look pained. … It supports my view than he is seriously mentally ill."

In the world of Batman comics, The Joker is a super– villain, a highly intelligent but malevolent arch-criminal with a warped and sadistic sense of humour.

"I am the Joker," the gunman reportedly said to police as they arrested him standing beside his car outside the carnage-filled theatre in a shopping mall in a Denver suburb.

Some of the victims' families have urged the media to deny Mr. Holmes publicity, saying those gunned down in the darkness of a movie premiere deserve more attention than the alleged killer. President Barack Obama, who met with the families, apparently has agreed not to utter the killer's name.

More details emerged Tuesday of the terrifying minutes inside the theatre.

Allie Young, 19, survived after being shot in the neck perhaps because her friend, Stephanie Davies, applied pressure to the gaping wound. "We were laying there in the mouth of hell – there's smoke and explosions and guns, bats flying across the screen because the movie's still playing. It's dark. It's every child's worst nightmare," Ms. Davies said.

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The gunman roamed the aisles. "He would pick people up. … I saw him stand over someone," Ms. Davies recalled. "I just see hair and him holding the shirt, and 'boom.' "

That description of methodical killing was in stark contrast to the dazed, seemingly confused and disinterested man with untamed, orange hair sitting in a Colorado courtroom Monday.

"My guess is that he is a schizophrenic," Mr. Levin said.

Mr. Holmes is due back in court July 30 to be formally charged but it could take months, perhaps more than a year, before the case goes to trial. Court-ordered psychiatric examinations are expected before any judgment as to whether Mr. Holmes is mentally fit to stand trial.

As for Ms Chambers's vow to seek input from the victims' families regarding the death penalty, that's not unusual in a state where prosecutors are elected. Her term ends in November.

Many Western criminal-justice systems have scope for considering the views of victims and their families, although usually only at the penalty phase after conviction. In Canada, it's a process taken very seriously because it gives victims what is often their only chance to be heard in court.

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The multiple guilty pleas of homicidal Canadian air force commander Russell Williams in October, 2010, for example, were followed by a series of anguished victim-impact statements. So too was the conviction in May of sex killer Michael Rafferty, who in 2009, together with his girlfriend, murdered 8-year-old Victoria Stafford of Woodstock, Ont.

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Paul More


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