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Judge OK's insanity defense for Aurora massacre suspect James Holmes

Plea sets stage for lengthy mental evaluation of accused Aurora, Colo., theater gunman James Holmes. NBC's Leanne Gregg reports.

A Colorado judge allowed Aurora massacre suspect James Holmes to change his plea to not guilty by reason of insanity on Tuesday and ordered an independent mental health evaluation.

The grad-school dropout's next stop is the state hospital in Pueblo, Colo., where a sanity exam could take months, legal experts said.

"I don't think any of the families were surprised," said Sandy Phillips, mother of Jessica Ghawi, who was one of 12 people killed in an Aurora movie theater while attending a midnight Batman screening last summer.

"Do any of us think he's insane? No, absolutely not. He was way too meticulous to be insane. He's mean. He's evil. But he's not insane."

Before doctors interview Holmes, they will review a mountain of evidence in the case. Prosecutors have up to 3,000 potential witnesses, 2,000 pieces of physical evidence and 40,000 pages of paperwork.

Susan Walsh/AP file

Sandy Phillips, whose daughter was killed in the Aurora theater massacre, says she doesn't believe suspect James Holmes is insane.

The judge ruled Tuesday that prosecutors can add one more item to their file: a notebook Holmes sent to a University of Colorado psychiatrist before the shooting that reportedly contains violent plans.

Jerri Jackson, the mother of victim Matt McQuinn, said she is curious to learn what's in the notebook, including any mention of motive, but noted it won't answer the question that torments her most.

"One thing I've always wondered is what Matt's last thoughts were," she said. "Did he think, 'I'm going to die'? That's something I'll never know."

Holmes — who wore a bushy beard and his brown hair combed back — was at Tuesday's hearing but did not speak beyond saying, "No," when the judge asked if he had any questions.

Karen Steinhauser, a former prosecutor who has been closely following the case, said he will need to be more voluble with state examiners if he wants to mount an insanity defense.

If he refuses to cooperate with the court-ordered evaluation, his lawyers will be barred from calling their own mental-health experts to the stand during the trial or the penalty phase.

Holmes' team has asked that a defense lawyer and investigator be allowed to attend the sanity exams. In a reply motion, prosecutors said there's no precedent for it in Colorado and that having outsiders there "negatively impacts the accuracy" of the tests.

A stack of other motions were released Tuesday, including one in which the defense indicated it plans to ask for a change of venue, arguing Holmes cannot get a fair trial in Arapahoe County.

Steinhauser said the defense will have to do more than argue there's been too much pre-trial publicity to convince the judge to transfer the case.

"The issue with the change of venue is whether they're going to be able to find jurors who haven’t already made up their minds," she said.

If the defense can show — through a survey or some other means — that seating an impartial jury will be near impossible, the judge may consider moving the trial to a county where not as many potential jurors were directly affected by the shooting.

In other motions, the defense is trying to get expert testimony and Holmes' statements to investigators excluded from the trial. It also doesn't want the jury to see a evidence seized from Holmes' phone, wallet and a dating-site profile that asked, "Will you visit me in prison?"

One defense motion asked that authorities also turn over an email sent to the Century 16 theater four days after the massacre that said, "I am coming over to finish his job. The master demands it." The significance was unclear.

Holmes won't return to court until Aug. 2, a couple of weeks after the anniversary of the shooting.

"We are coming up on the one-year mark very quickly," Phillips said. "I just want people to remember the victims and not give so much attention to the killer."

 

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