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Accused Colorado gunman to plead not guilty by insanity

Accused Aurora theater shooting suspect James Holmes listens at his arraignment in Centennial, Colorado March 12, 2013. REUTERS/R.J. Sangost
Accused Aurora theater shooting suspect James Holmes listens at his arraignment in Centennial, Colorado March 12, 2013. REUTERS/R.J. Sangost

By Keith Coffman

DENVER (Reuters) - Accused Colorado theater gunman James Holmes, who could face the death penalty if convicted of murdering 12 moviegoers in a rampage last year, intends to plead not guilty by reason of insanity, according to court records released on Tuesday.

Holmes, 25, is charged with multiple counts of first-degree murder and attempted murder in connection with the July 2012 shooting spree in a suburban Denver cinema during a midnight screening of the Batman film "The Dark Knight Rises."

The attack, which along with last year's Connecticut school rampage helped reignite a national debate on gun control, ranks as one of the nation's deadliest mass shootings. Seventy people were wounded in addition to the 12 who were killed.

The court filing by Holmes' public defenders said he intended to enter the plea at a hearing on May 13, but the lawyers continued to object to the constitutionality of the state's insanity defense law.

A judge entered a standard not guilty plea on Holmes' behalf at a hearing in March.

Holmes' lawyers previously sought to have the state's insanity defense law declared unconstitutional, arguing that it could require Holmes to divulge information that could be used against him at trial and at sentencing if there is a conviction.

Arapahoe County District Court Judge William Sylvester said in March that if Holmes, a former neuroscience graduate student, pursued an insanity defense he could be given "medically appropriate" drugs during psychiatric interviews and possibly face a polygraph test.

Prosecutors have depicted Holmes as a young man whose once promising academic career was in tatters after he failed graduate school oral board exams in June, prompting one of his professors to suggest he might not be a good fit for his doctoral program.

'ONLY DEFENSE POSSIBLE'

Arapahoe County District Court Judge Carlos Samour Jr., who took over the case, said in a written order on Tuesday that he will give Holmes' lawyers a chance to establish "good cause" for allowing a change of plea at the hearing next week.

Attorney Craig Silverman, a former Denver prosecutor now in private practice, said he expects that Holmes will be allowed to change his plea because he faces the death penalty.

Silverman, who is not connected to the case, said the decision to propose a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity did not come as a surprise.

"This is not a whodunit. The premeditation is obvious, so the only defense possible is insanity," he said.

Holmes' attorneys could be expected to later challenge the methodology used by the court-appointed psychiatrists who may evaluate him to determine whether he is insane.

"The defense will complain about anything and everything unless and until the prosecution relents on its desire for the death penalty," he said.

Public defenders have said in court pleadings that Holmes has been hospitalized twice since his arrest, once for "potential self-inflicted injuries." He has grown a shaggy beard and longer hair since he was arrested outside the movie theater minutes after the shooting spree.

At his first court appearance days after the shooting, he looked dazed and sleepy with his hair dyed orange and red.

Holmes' trial is scheduled to begin in February 2014.

Neither prosecutors or attorneys for Holmes have publicly commented on the case due to a court-imposed gag order.

(Reporting by Keith Coffman; Writing by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Paul Simao)

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