Will Colorado shootings suspect James Eagan Holmes ever face trial?

Will Colorado shootings suspect James Eagan Holmes ever face trial?

By M. Alex Johnson, NBC News

When James Eagan Holmes, the suspect in the Colorado movie theater shootings, enters court for the first time Monday, he will be taking the first step in a long legal journey likely to center on two issues: Is he competent to stand trial? And will prosecutors seek the death penalty?

M. Alex Johnson is a reporter for NBC News. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

Police identified Holmes, 24, a graduate student at the University of Colorado-Denver medical school, as the suspect in the shootings at a screening of “Batman: The Dark Knight Rises” in Aurora, Colo., shortly after midnight Friday morning. Twelve people were killed, including a 6-year-old girl, and 58 others were injured.

Holmes will appear before a judge at 9:30 a.m. on Monday in Arapahoe County District Court in nearby Centennial. Charges aren’t expected to be filed at this early stage; the hearing is intended to advise Holmes that he is the focus of the investigation and to set conditions for his continued detention.

Carol Chambers, district attorney for the 18th Judicial District, which includes Arapahoe County, wouldn’t address potential charges, telling reporters Friday that her focus was on providing information and resources to the victims and their families.

Eventually, Holmes will almost certainly be charged and he will have to enter a plea. If he pleads not guilty by reason of insanity, or if his attorneys argue that he is incompetent to stand trial, proceedings could stretch out for months or years — even indefinitely.

If Holmes’ lawyers believe he isn’t competent, they have “an absolute duty to raise competency and [request] a competency evaluation,” said Scott H. Robinson, a prominent Denver criminal defense attorney.

A defendant is considered incompetent if he’s unable to understand the charges against him or to assist in his own defense. Legal proceedings must stop until the defendant is restored to competency.

“Only down the road do we consider the question of ‘not guilty by reason of insanity,”’ Robinson told NBC station KUSA of Denver.

Then there’s the question of whether Chambers would seek the death penalty.

“This is a unique type of situation,” said Robinson, who noted that Chambers is term-limited and may not want to be saddled with that decision as she leaves office — especially since it would be a non-issue if Holmes is found incompetent or not guilty by reason of insanity.

Instead, that decision could be made by Chambers’ successor, Republican George Brauchler or Democrat Ethan Feldman, one of whom voters will elect in November.

James Alan Fox, a criminal justice professor at Northeastern University in Boston, said people who commit mass murders usually aren’t mentally ill.

“It takes a certain degree of clear-headedness to plan and execute a crime like this,” Fox told NBC News.

“Contrary to the common misperception that these guys suddenly snap and go berserk, these are well-planned executions,” he said.

Clint Van Zandt, president of the security firm Van Zandt Associates and a former criminal profile expert for the FBI, also cautioned against rushing to any judgment.

“We’ve got to be careful,” Van Zandt said in an interview on TODAY, criticizing commentators who he said were going on TV and “flippantly saying, ‘Well, he’s a sociopath, he’s a psychopath.'”

“We all want to put a label on somebody,” Van Zandt said. “We want to say, ‘What is the cause, and what is the cure?’

“We want that real quick,” but the human mind is too “complex” for such an easy answer, he said.

Maggie Fox of NBC News and NBC station KUSA of Denver contributed to this report.

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