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Aurora massacre families brace for raw emotions of trial

Barry Guiterrez / for NBC News

Amee Gharbi holds her son, Yousef Gharbi, who was shot during the Aurora, Colo., theater massacre last fall. Doctors told him the the bullet fragment that entered his brain will likely stay there for the rest of his life.

Sitting in a preliminary hearing this week, Amee Gharbi was not prepared for the sound of 33 rapid-fire gunshots on a snippet of 911 tape from the Aurora movie-theater massacre.

She glanced over at her 16-year-old son Yousef, who got a bullet to the brain during the July 20 bloodbath, and "his eyes were as wide as mine."

Gharbi knows she will likely hear more of the same -- and worse -- after a judge found probable cause for first-degree murder charges against suspect James Holmes late Thursday, putting the case on track for trial.

But she said she'll endure it in the hope that light will be shed on the big unanswered question looming over the tragedy: Why would someone shoot up a theater full of innocent Batman fans?

"Holmes maybe will say something," she said hopefully.

At the very least, she said, the public may get a look inside a notebook he mailed to a University of Colorado psychiatrist in which he reportedly detailed his plans. "Everybody wants to know what's in it," she said.

The notebook can only be introduced as evidence if Holmes, 25, pleads not guilty by reason of insanity, removing the doctor-client privilege that is keeping it under wraps for now.
The plea will come at Holmes' arraignment, which won't happen until March 12, the judge ruled Friday. If Holmes does enter an insanity plea, a trial date would not be set until his mental health exam is done, legal expert Scott Robinson said. 

At any point, prosecutors and the defense could strike a deal, thereby avoiding a trial, but many of the Aurora families say they want Holmes judged by a jury, even if it compounds the anguish they felt at this week's hearing.

Some are hungry for more information about Holmes' thinking and planning. Some seek emotional closure. Others know it’s the only road to capital punishment.

"Through an entire first day of the hearing, not one person in that room had a dry eye -- except for that son of a b***," Sam Soudani said of Holmes. "As far as I'm concerned, if he wants to be a robot, he should be deactivated."

'I just want to look him in the eye'
Soudani's 23-year-old daughter, Farrah, survived the shooting but suffered major organ damage. They both attended the preliminary hearing, but Soudani said Farrah would probably skip any trial.

"I don't think my daughter could look at him," he said.

Two fathers of Aurora theater victims describe watching the accused gunman, James Holmes, in court. KUSA's Todd Walker reports.

For Gharbi, face-time with Holmes is one reason she wants a trial instead of a plea deal.

"I just want to look him in the eye," she said of the doctoral-program dropout, who stared impassively into the distance during this week's court proceedings.

A trial isn't a necessity for Scott Larimer, who lost his 27-year-old son John and just wants to make sure that Holmes "never walks the streets again."

Yet if there is one, he hopes it will reveal whether anyone -- particularly the University of Colorado -- knew what Holmes was capable of and failed to act.

Larimer, who lives in Illinois, did not attend the preliminary hearing and said he wouldn't be able to handle the trial testimony.

"When they start talking about finding my son lying on the floor, I'm not sure I'm up to sitting in court. And if there are pictures," he said, trailing off.

Theresa Hoover, whose 18-year-old son, A.J. Boik, was among the 12 killed, went to the hearing, steeling herself for a raw reaction.

"I knew my child's name would come up, but to actually hear it was a little surreal," she said.

"During the 911 calls, A.J.'s fiancee [who survived] was with me, and it made her relive a little bit of what happened and that broke my heart. For me, I was like, 'OK, that's the moment when my son died.'"

Still, Hoover is not sorry she went. She said that since July she has been "in a daze," not quite willing or able to grasp that her artistic, spirited young son is really gone.

"Attending that hearing kind of helped me ... move past that," she said, adding that a trial would help her face the reality of her loss. "To hear all of this is almost healing."

Some want a trial because they want the case to end with a lethal injection, not a prison cell. Prosecutors have 63 days from arraignment to announce whether they will seek the death penalty.

Hoover said that while she doesn't think Holmes deserves to "walk this earth," she would rather see him locked up without parole, forced to "live with what he's done."

"Put him in general population, though," she said. "With the other mean guys."

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