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Questioning of jurors begins in theater shooting case

In this June 4, 2013 file photo, Aurora theater shooting suspect James Holmes sits in court in Centennial, Colo.
In this June 4, 2013 file photo, Aurora theater shooting suspect James Holmes sits in court in Centennial, Colo.
Andy Cross, Associated Press

CENTENNIAL, Colo. — Prospective jurors in the Colorado theater shooting case were being questioned Wednesday about their views on the death penalty and mental illness as the second phase of jury selection began.

In the months ahead, the judge and lawyers on both sides are expected to question hundreds of people who were not excused after filling out lengthy questionnaires.

The first person questioned — a woman who appeared to be in her 20s — expressed some reservations about the death penalty but said she could keep an open mind. She was asked to return for the next round of selection.

James Holmes, wearing a blue-and-white striped shirt and dark gray slacks, sat at the defense table doodling and didn't look up when District Attorney George Brauchler told the woman she might have to vote on whether to impose the death penalty.

The woman, whose name was not disclosed, said she believes killing is morally wrong. But when asked whether she could recommend the death sentence, she responded: "It's hard to say in a murder case because what's the punishment for someone who broke that rule and killed someone."

Holmes, 27, has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity in the July 20, 2012, attack on a Denver-area movie theater that killed 12 people and injured 70 others. His lawyers acknowledge he was the gunman but say he was in the grip of a psychotic episode.

If jurors find Holmes was insane at the time, he would be committed indefinitely to the state psychiatric hospital.

Prosecutors dispute the insanity plea and are seeking the death penalty, though Colorado has only executed one person in the past 40 years.

Only potential jurors who would be willing to sentence someone to death can be selected for the jury.

Thousands of people have been called to court since Jan. 20 to fill out the questionnaires. Judge Carlos A. Samour Jr. dismissed more than 1,000 who brought doctors' notes, weren't U.S. citizens, had family problems or weren't Arapahoe County residents.

Twelve people will be questioned each day in a process that could last as long as four months. Each side will have 20 minutes to ask each person whether they can be fair about the case that has received massive news coverage.

Samour hopes the process will winnow the field down to about 120 people who will then return for group questioning. Twelve jurors and 12 alternates will be chosen from that pool.

The scope of jury selection is a testament to the logistical hurdles of trying the rare case of a mass shooter who survives his attack. Opening statements won't likely begin until late May or early June.

"It's a soul-searching moment for a person to say, under oath, that yes, under the right circumstances I could vote for death for this person." said Denver attorney Craig Silverman, who is not involved in the Holmes case but has been monitoring it.