Hor­ror mounts in Colorado trial

Pros­e­cu­tors risk over­whelm­ing the jury with grue­some ev­i­dence in their case against James Holmes.

Los Angeles Times - - THE NATION - By Maria L. La Ganga maria.la­ganga@la­times.com

CEN­TEN­NIAL, Colo. — Judge Car­los Samour Jr. has al­lowed pros­e­cu­tors to dis­play X-rays and au­topsy pho­tos of 6-year-old Veron­ica Moser-Sul­li­van, the youngest of 12 peo­ple James E. Holmes killed dur­ing a mid­night screen­ing of the “The Dark Knight Rises” in July 2012.

The 58-pound child was shot four times be­fore she died. A bul­let tore through her liver, spleen, kid­ney and pan­creas. An­other went through her right but­tock, her hip and her blad­der and re­mained lodged in her 4foot-4 frame.

Ju­rors wiped away tears as they lis­tened to Ara­pa­hoe County Coro­ner Kelly Lear-Kaul de­scribe the dam­age Holmes’ ram­page wrought on the frag­ile lit­tle body and as they viewed the images, the ghostly X-rays, the grue­some pho­tos.

But will the jury in Di­vi­sion 201 of the Ara­pa­hoe County Jus­tice Cen­ter ever see the sparkly san­dals and tiny ear­rings the lit­tle girl wore on the night she died? Not a chance. “Yes, they are things that she was wear­ing,” Samour told the court last month dur­ing the fourth week of Holmes’ months-long trial. “But what’s the pro­ba­tive value? What does it go to other than she was wear­ing them? And then there is the risk for prej­u­dice that those items carry with them.”

As ju­rors weigh whether to find that the 27-year-old killer de­serves the death penalty, their ex­pe­ri­ence in a sub­ur­ban Den­ver court­room raises a thorny legal ques­tion: When it comes to the gory ev­i­dence of a ter­ri­ble crime, how much is too much for a jury to hear?

The panel in­cludes a physi­cist and a gas sta­tion at­ten­dant, a plumber and a spe­cial ed­u­ca­tion teacher — peo­ple un­likely to en­counter may­hem in their ev­ery­day lives. But as ju­rors de­cide the fate of one of Amer­ica’s most no­to­ri­ous mass shoot­ers, they face hor­rors that make even vet­eran first re­spon­ders weep.

The 19 women and five men who con­sti­tute Holmes’ jury and its al­ter­nates have seen pho­tos of dead bod­ies strewn across a bloody movie theater. They have heard about a woman so gravely wounded that she had to hold her in­testines in­side her body un­til help came.

Vic­tims have de­scribed how other peo­ple’s blood coursed over their faces, gobs of flesh in the sticky red rivers. They have talked about the shrap­nel and bul­lets that tore through arms and legs and col­lar­bones, rel­e­gat­ing at least three peo­ple to wheel­chairs.

De­fense at­tor­neys have fought to bar the grimmest ev­i­dence, and the jury has been warned not to de­cide Holmes’ fate based on sym­pa­thy, re­vul­sion, rage or any other emo­tion.

Holmes is charged with 166 counts — in­clud­ing first- de­gree mur­der — in the ram­page that also in­jured 70 peo­ple. His at­tor­neys ac­knowl­edge that their client is re­spon­si­ble for the may­hem; he has pleaded not guilty by rea­son of insanity.

Pros­e­cu­tors are try­ing to per­suade the jury to con­vict Holmes and to find that he de­serves to be put to death. They must prove ev­ery one of the charges, so ju­rors will hear from a lengthy pa­rade of wit­nesses dur­ing the es­ti­mated five-month trial.

Many sur­vivors al­ready have tes­ti­fied. Ste­fan Mo­ton, par­a­lyzed from the chest down, rolled up to the wit­ness stand in an elec­tric wheel­chair ma­neu­vered via mouth con­trol. Caleb Med­ley, who can­not talk, spelled out his an­swers us­ing a large white al­pha­bet board. As he pointed, an in­ter­preter read the let­ters aloud.

Rick Korn­feld, a for­mer as­sis­tant U.S. at­tor­ney, de­scribed the pros­e­cu­tion’s per­for­mance as “cer­tainly not of the less-is-more school of trial ad­vo­cacy.” He warned that even in a hor­ren­dous crime like this, there comes a point when enough is enough.

“You run the risk of trau­ma­tiz­ing the jury — for what pur­pose?” he said. “At a cer­tain point, you can pound them over the head with so much ev­i­dence that the stuff that re­ally mat­ters, they may be re­ally punch-drunk by the time they see it.”

Still, dur­ing the lengthy se­lec­tion process, po­ten­tial ju­rors were warned that the ev­i­dence would be hard to bear, said Craig Sil­ver­man, a for­mer Den­ver chief deputy dis­trict at­tor­ney. Those who could not stand it, he said, did not make the cut.

Ara­pa­hoe County Dist. Atty. Ge­orge H. Brauch­ler told po­ten­tial ju­rors that the trial would be “a roller coaster through a haunted house,” Sil­ver­man re­counted. And Brauch­ler has been care­ful to in­ter­sperse in­tense sto­ries with more mun­dane tes­ti­mony so as not to over­whelm the jury.

“If the pros­e­cu­tion is do­ing its job, the jury will want to em­brace the vic­tims and re­act ac­cord­ingly,” Sil­ver­man said. “It’s all about cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment too.... You have to get peo­ple an­gry to vote for death.”

But even Sil­ver­man, who has suc­cess­fully pros­e­cuted a death penalty case, has been un­able to en­dure some of the more heart­break­ing tes­ti­mony.

Sil­ver­man watches a live stream of the trial from his of­fice. But when Christina An­gelique Blache tes­ti­fied, he had to shut it off.

Blache, an Air Force vet­eran, was shot in both legs. At one point, she tes­ti­fied dur­ing the trial’s first week, “I looked down at my in­juries. My jeans were shred­ded. I took my jeans and twisted and twisted to make a tourni­quet so I wouldn’t bleed to death.”

As ex­hausted first re­spon­ders tried to help Blache out of the chaotic theater, she said, they dropped her.

She landed on an­other vic­tim.

Some­one who was not mov­ing.

Nor breath­ing.

RJ San­gosti Den­ver Post

JAMES HOLMES and at­tor­ney Ta­mara Brady in 2013. One ex­pert said of the pros­e­cu­tion’s case in the Aurora, Colo., shoot­ing trial: “It’s all about cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment.... You have to get peo­ple an­gry to vote for death.”

Ted S. War­ren As­so­ci­ated Press

A POSTER with a photo of 6-year-old vic­tim Veron­ica Moser-Sul­li­van was shown at a me­mo­rial in 2012.

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