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Aurora shooting suspect James Holmes mentally ill, attorneys say

Alleged Colorado shooter James Holmes, who appeared in court Thursday, appeared unfocused at times during the 90 minute proceeding. Legal experts say his defense team – who made multiple references to their client's mental illness – may be setting the stage for an insanity plea. NBC's Miguel Almaguer reports.

Updated at 7:14 p.m. ET: At a hearing Thursday in Centennial, Colo., lawyers representing movie theater mass shooting suspect James Eagan Holmes said their client is mentally ill.

Pool / Getty Images file

James Holmes, during his first court appearance at the Arapahoe County Courthouse in Centennial, Colo. on July 23.

Lawyers for Holmes made the disclosure at a hearing in which a coalition of news organizations argued for the judge to unseal documents relating to the July 20 shooting spree in an Aurora, Colo., theater that killed 12 people and injured 58 others.

Holmes is charged with 142 criminal counts, including 24 counts of first-degree murder in the attack at a midnight premiere of the Batman movie "The Dark Knight Rises" and possession of explosives. After arresting Holmes, police found his apartment was booby-trapped with a jumble of explosives and incendiary devices set to be triggered by tripwires. It took experts several days to disarm the devices.

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Scott Robinson, a Denver defense attorney not connected to the case and a legal consultant to NBC News, says references to Holmes' mental illness by his attorneys and their allusion to a university psychiatrist he had contacted signal that the defense team likely will pursue an insanity strategy.

"By alluding to Holmes' mental problems, it's clear the defense is sowing the seeds for a defense of not guilty by reason of insanity," said Robinson.

Appearing in court Thursday for the third time since his arrest, Holmes had the same dazed demeanor that he has had in previous court appearances, according to the Associated Press.

So far, nearly all court records on file in the case are under seal — off limits to the public — with just a few exceptions allowed by 18th Judicial District Chief Judge William Sylvester.

Sylvester did not rule Thursday on the motion to unseal the documents.

The 85-page motion argues that the public has "an obvious and legitimate interest" in actions being taken by government officials in the case.

"This status quo violates the public’s constitutional right of access to the records of criminal prosecutions and undermines our nation’s firm commitment to the transparency and public accountability of the criminal justice system," the document argues.

The media was also seeking Sylvester's clarification on a gag order that prevents attorneys on both sides and law enforcement officials and University of Colorado personnel from discussing the case.

The motion was filed on behalf of 21 media organizations, including NBCUniversal Media.

Opening the records would give the public a much more complete picture of the proceedings against Holmes, 24,  who had recently withdrawn from a graduate program in neuroscience at the University of Colorado.

Attorneys for Holmes have argued to keep Holmes’ case file under wraps, saying that wide release of information could affect their client’s ability to get a fair trial.

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On the other hand, Daniel King, one of Holmes' attorneys, also argued that the defense team need more information from prosecutors and investigators to assess their client, AP reported.

"We cannot begin to assess the nature and the depth of Mr. Holmes' mental illness until we receive full disclosure," he said.

At the university, Holmes had sought help from a psychiatrist, Lynne Fenton, King said.

It's unclear if Fenton's conversations with Holmes will remain protected and confidential in court. A hearing was scheduled for Aug. 16 to establish whether there is a doctor-patient relationship between Fenton and Holmes, AP reported.

The university confirmed to NBC News that the school has hired an attorney for Fenton and for an unnamed campus police officer whom Fenton may have spoken to about Holmes.

Prosecutors have argued that releasing documents could jeopardize their investigation.

NBC News' Miguel Alamguer contributed to this report

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