CENTENNIAL, Colo. (AP) — 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.”
Kaylan Bailey was 13 that night, sitting with a group of family and friends in the midst of the 421 people watching a midnight “Batman” premiere. She thought she was witnessing a prank until she realized bullets were flying past her.
She reached over to Veronica Moser-Sullivan, the 6-year-old girl she had been babysitting earlier, and realized she wasn’t breathing. “I was screaming Veronica’s name,” she remembered.
They were the among the first of many prosecution witnesses in the death penalty trial of James Holmes, and their gripping testimony Tuesday made clear the state’s determination to make sure jurors know the carnage Holmes caused inside the suburban Denver theater on July 20, 2012.
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 the only question left for jurors to resolve: whether Holmes was legally insane at the time.
But on this first long day of testimony, the judge repeatedly turned away defense objections to particularly gruesome and tragic details. Defense attorneys did not question any of the 10 witnesses — nine people who were in the theater, and Aurora police Sgt. Michael Hawkins, who told of barreling to the scene at 100 mph and then carrying dying Veronica to an ambulance.
“I looked down at her and I realized that she was gone,” Hawkins said, his strong, clear voice fading to a grieving whisper.
She was the youngest to die that night.
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 dismissed her motions, reasoning that the evidence is relevant and fairly depicts a horrific crime.
Prosecutors say they will prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Holmes 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, 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 survived the shotgun blast Holmes fired at his face but lost an eye and was left unable to walk and barely able to speak.
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, Veronica’s father, fixed his gaze on Holmes, glaring intently at him from the gallery for long periods of time. But when Hawkins began to describe pulling Veronica from the theater in his arms, Sullivan shut his eyes and dropped his head. Hawkins gave Sullivan an understanding glance on his way out of the courtroom.
In opening statements, the defense sought to focus 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.