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Aurora Theater Shooter Gets Life in Prison – How Did That Happen?

In 2012, James Holmes entered a theater in Aurora, CO during a showing of The Dark Knight Rises carrying a Smith and Wesson MP-15 .223/5.56mm rifle with a 100 round drum magazine, a Remington 870 12 gauge pump shotgun, and a .40 caliber Glock Model 22 pistol. He threw two canisters of smoke/gas and opened fire, killing 12 people and injuring 70 others with a total of 76 shots.

The trial, in this case, started on April 27, 2015, and on July 16, after a jury deliberation of just under seven hours, Holmes was found guilty of twenty-four counts of first-degree murder, 140 counts of attempted first-degree murder, one count of possessing illegal explosives, and a sentence enhancement of a crime of violence.

Many in both the public and the media expected the death penalty for Holmes but instead, on August 7, Holmes was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. 

The question now being asked is why wasn’t he given the death penalty?

Leaving the issue of the morality of the death penalty out of the equation as well as the way in which the legal system operates in a manner which allows the prosecutors a better chance of being able to place jurors in favor of the death penalty on the jury, there are two reasons for the actual sentence given. One clearly played a part and the other likely did.

Jury deliberations are, to a large degree, secret since no record is made of them and the only way to recreate what happened in the jury room is by interviewing the jurors who were there. Not all jurors are willing to discuss what happened and, in addition, many of those who do talk either misremember what occurred or else present it in a manner that makes many experts doubt it is what actually occurred.

In the Holmes case, it is known that the jurors were unable to reach a unanimous verdict, which is required, on whether the death penalty was to be given. This inability results in an automatic sentence of life without parole. 

However, many legal experts were already questioning whether the death penalty was likely based on the evidence of insanity offered at trial and the short deliberation time between the submission of the case to the jury and the verdict of guilty.

While technically not allowed under the rules, most attorneys who do or have worked in the area of criminal law know that juries sometimes reach compromises to arrive at a verdict. In the Holmes case, there was abundant evidence offered to at least raise the issue of whether or not the defendant was insane. Unlike what the movies or television portray, an actual “not guilty by reason of insanity” verdict is extremely rare since, many believe, the system is designed to make it as hard as possible to achieve this result even when it is warranted.

When a good criminal defense attorney is tasked to select a jury during the process known as voir dire is careful to reinforce a juror’s right to stand strong in their beliefs and not to be bullied into changing their vote just to reach the unanimous vote required for a guilty verdict. In reality, the lawyer knows that the jurors can often be persuaded to not hang the jury, a term used to refer to a jury which cannot reach a unanimous verdict and which will result in a mistrial and a new trial being conducted at a later date and with a new jury, during the guilty/not guilty phase of the deliberations in exchange for their views being more strongly considered during the deliberation on the sentencing phase.

It is likely that one or more jurors who weren’t completely convinced that James Holmes was sane were convinced he was dangerous and shouldn’t be “out on the street”. It also seems reasonable to believe there would have been discussions that if he had been found not guilty by reason of insanity that at some point he could have been released from a mental facility, whether that was true or not. Those same jurors would have thus went along with finding him guilty but then stood strong in the sentencing phase and insisted that under no circumstances would they agree to sentence a person with the Holmes’ mental problems to death.

This scenario is the most likely one for how a jury would have quickly found a person guilty of such a heinous act and yet not sentenced him to die. 

It goes back to the old lawyer’s adage that, usually, if a lawyer has done their job correctly, a jury can be counted on to decide a case in a way that is fair.

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