CENTENNIAL, Colo.: Katie Medley, nine months pregnant and crouching between the seats of a movie theater filling with tear gas, gunfire and screams, looked at her husband Caleb’s bloody face and told a friend, “He’s dead, he’s dead.”
Prodeo Et Patria was 14 that night, and sitting with his parents somewhere in the middle of the 421 people watching a midnight Batman premiere. He thought the gunfire was a joke until his father ordered him to the floor, where someone kicked off his glasses in the chaos.
His father told him to run and refused to leave his mother, whose arm and foot were shattered by bullets. Hoisting his wife onto his back, they made for an exit together. “That’s when I first felt a gunshot hit me,” Patria said.
They were the among the first of many prosecution witnesses in the death penalty trial of James Holmes, and their gripping testimony made clear the state’s determination to plunge deep into the carnage Holmes caused inside the suburban Denver theater on July 20, 2012, even if it means making survivors relive their horrors.
Judge Carlos A. Samour Jr. warned jurors as the trial opened not to let sympathy and emotion influence their judgment. The defense team has conceded that Holmes was the killer, hoping to focus not on the crime itself or its lingering damage, but on what it sees as the only question jurors must resolve: whether Holmes was legally insane at the time.
But again and again on this first long day of testimony, the judge turned away defense objections to particularly gruesome and tragic details.
Defense attorney Katherine Spengler argued that grisly photos, a 911 recording of shrieks and screams, and the words “bloody victim” that a witness wrote on a diagram of the theater served only to inflame the jury. The judge dimissed her motions, reasoning that the evidence is relevant and fairly depicts a horrific crime.
Prosecutors say they will prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he was sane, therefore guilty, and should be executed. Holmes has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity; his defense hopes the jury will have him indefinitely committed to a mental institution.
Tuesday was Day One of testimony in a trial expected to last four months or more. If the prosecution keeps this up into August, the cumulative weight of the victims’ suffering could make the defense job even more difficult.
Perhaps the most riveting testimony was also the shortest so far, coming from Caleb Medley, an aspiring comedian who lost an eye and was left unable to walk and barely able to speak after Holmes fired a bullet into his brain.
Prosecutors asked him only two questions: Was he married to Katie? Was he at the theater that night?
From a wheelchair, he answered the first with a breathy, grunted “Yeah.”
To the second, he tapped out his answer on a poster board with the letters of the alphabet: Y, E, S.
His wife filled in the rest of their story, recalling her desperation between the seats before she decided to make a break for it, to try to save their baby. She said she took his hand, and felt him squeeze hers back, thinking she’d never again see him alive.
“I told him that I loved him and that I would take care of our baby if he didn’t make it,” she said.
She later gave birth to a healthy son, now 3, as Caleb underwent his third brain surgery in the same hospital.
She kept her composure Tuesday, even as her husband’s injuries were put on display, but sobbed as she returned to her seat in the courtroom. Others comforted her and said “good job.”
Robert and Arlene Holmes, sitting two rows behind their son, had no visible reaction to these descriptions of his slaughter. Neither did Holmes, who stared directly ahead. But Ian Sullivan, whose 6-year-old daughter Veronica was the youngest to die that night, fixed his gaze on Holmes, glaring intently at him from the audience for long periods of time.
Defense attorneys did not question any of the witnesses from the theater, perhaps signaling a strategy not to prolong their wrenching testimony.
In opening statements, the defense sought to focus instead on what was going on inside Holmes’ mind, which they say was so addled by schizophrenia and psychosis that his sense of right and wrong was distorted, and he lost any control over his actions. They won’t call their own witnesses or begin making the case for insanity until after the prosecution rests, many weeks from now.
Defense lawyers said Holmes was a “good kid” who sensed something wrong with his mind, even at a young age. Studying neuroscience at the University of Colorado was his attempt to fix his thoughts; instead, “psychosis bloomed” when he failed in the doctoral program, and delusions then commanded him to kill, they said.
District Attorney George Brauchler described Holmes as a frighteningly intelligent killer who meticulously planned and carried out the mass murder to make himself feel good and be remembered, all the while knowing that it was immoral and illegal.
Brauchler said two court-appointed psychiatrists who examined Holmes in custody decided he was sane during the attack. Public Defender Daniel King countered that Holmes was psychotic at the time, and that every doctor who has seen him — 20 in all — agreed he suffers from schizophrenia.