Full coverage of the shootings at the midnight showing of "The Dark Knight Rises" in Aurora, Colo.

Victims' Families Fume at Delay in "Dark Knight" Massacre Case

"Rot in hell, Holmes," one victim's father shouted at the end of a hearing whose outcome — a delay in James Holmes' arraignment — frustrated victims' families

By Dan Elliott and Thomas Peipert
|  Friday, Jan 11, 2013  |  Updated 2:19 PM PDT
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Aurora, Colo., Cinema Rampage Remembered

Bill Robles / NBC News

The next phase in the murder case against accused Aurora, Colo., movie theater massacre gunman James Holmes will be his entry of a plea.

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A judge on Friday delayed the arraignment of the man charged with the Colorado theater shooting until March despite objections from prosecutors and most of the victims and their families. 

District Judge William Sylvester ruled Thursday night that prosecutors had presented sufficient evidence at a preliminary hearing to proceed toward trial on charges that James Holmes killed 12 people and injured 70 others at a suburban Denver movie theater on July 20.

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Holmes, who is charged with multiple counts of first-degree murder and attempted murder, won't have to enter a plea until March 12 after the judge granted a defense motion to delay that proceeding.

A murmur of disbelief rippled through the courtroom when the defense said it wouldn't be ready until March. Then, at the end of the hearing, the father of Rebecca Wingo, who was killed in the shooting, shouted "Rot in hell, Holmes."

The judge reconvened the proceeding to talk to Steve Hernandez, who apologized and promised there would be no more outbursts. The judge was sympathetic.

"I am terribly sorry for your loss and I can only begin to imagine the emotions that are raging," Sylvester told him.

Sylvester had asked Holmes if he objected to the delay and defense attorney Tamara Brady answered for him, saying he did not. Defense lawyers didn't say why they wanted to delay entering a plea.

One possible reason could be to seek a mental health evaluation by a doctor of their choosing. Lawyers for Holmes have said he is mentally ill, raising the possibility of an insanity defense.

If Holmes had entered an insanity plea on Friday, an evaluation would be done by state doctors.

Prosecutors objected to the delay and said they were ready to move ahead.

Sylvester said he understood their position but wanted to make sure he did not do anything that could lay the grounds for an appeal.

"We want to avoid at all costs doing anything improper," the judge said.

Following the hearing, District Attorney George Brauchler, who took office this week, didn't specifically address the delay but said he wanted to "protect the interests of all involved in this case."

If Holmes, 25, is convicted of first-degree murder, he could face the death penalty. Prosecutors have not said whether they would pursue that sentence.

The hearing capped an emotional week in which the public, including victims and their families, got the first look at evidence gathered against Holmes and heard police officers describe attempts to save the wounded.

During the preliminary hearing, witnesses testified that Holmes spent weeks amassing an arsenal and planning the attack at a midnight showing of "The Dark Knight Rises," and that he took photos of himself hours before the shooting, including one that showed him grinning with a handgun.

They also detailed an elaborate booby trap set up at Holmes' apartment designed to explode at the same time the theater attack occurred several miles away.

Prosecution witnesses testified that Holmes began acquiring weapons in early May, and by July 6 he had two semi-automatic pistols, a shotgun, a semi-automatic rifle, 6,200 rounds of ammunition and high-capacity magazines that allow a shooter to fire more rounds without stopping to reload.

Holmes' lawyers called no witnesses during the hearing.

Another possibility in the case is that either side could argue that Holmes is not mentally capable of assisting in his own defense. If that happens, the judge would order a mental competency evaluation. Sylvester also can order an evaluation if he has his own questions about Holmes' competence.

In the case of the Tucson, Ariz., shooting that killed six people and wounded 13, including then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, Jared Loughner was initially ruled incompetent to stand trial. However, after a year of treatment, Loughner was ruled competent, the case proceeded, and he entered guilty pleas.

If Holmes ends up pleading not guilty by reason of insanity, Sylvester would also order a psychiatric evaluation by doctors at the state hospital. A jury would consider that evaluation, along with testimony by expert witnesses, any other court-ordered evaluations and other evidence, in deciding at a trial whether Holmes is or is not guilty by reason of insanity.

If found not guilty by reason of insanity, Holmes would be committed to the state mental hospital for treatment. His case would be reviewed every six months. He conceivably could be released if he ever is deemed no longer insane.

"Insanity is what this case is going to turn on," said Denver criminal defense attorney Dan Recht. "This is not a whodunit case."

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