One by one, the wounded and the grieving are telling a Colorado judge how the Aurora movie theater gunman stripped the normal from their lives. Some are sobbing, some are angry. All are shattered by loss.
It is a parade of pain that will not change the sentence for the 27-year-old shooter. James Eagan Holmes will spend the rest of his life behind bars.
But the inevitable outcome didn’t stop the grieving grandfather of the gunman’s youngest victim from making a suggestion:
“I would challenge the murderer to do the right thing for once in this trial and petition the court for execution by firing squad,” said Robert Sullivan.
He was the doting grandfather of 6-year-old Veronica Moser-Sullivan, who had innocent, shining brown eyes. Her pregnant mother, Ashley Moser, was shot and paralyzed.
Moser said she was looking forward to being a mother of two, but now she’s nobody’s mommy. She needs constant nursing care. She said she wished Holmes could be sentenced to life as a quadriplegic, just as she and two other shooting victims are.
The courtroom now belongs to the people Holmes hurt. They are struggling to put incomprehensible loss and suffering into words. They speak about lives cut short as they were starting; about weddings, graduations and holidays that won’t be celebrated; about grandchildren they’ll never hold in their arms.
More than 40 people gave victim impact statements on Monday, and at least 40 more are expected on Tuesday.
His victims say they view Holmes as the personification of evil. Some can’t bring themselves to speak his name.
Holmes, a failed graduate student who has since been diagnosed as schizophrenic, spent months planning the shootings. He tossed tear gas into the theater and opened fire with a shotgun, a rifle and a handgun during the first minutes of the midnight showing of a Batman movie, “The Dark Knight Rises.” He fatally shot 12 people and wounded 70 before his gun jammed.
He raised an insanity defense, which jurors rejected. But they couldn’t agree on the death penalty. In Colorado, a jury has to agree unanimously on any death sentence. But a single juror could not condemn Holmes to death. And some of the victims have a problem with that.
Sullivan saw the holdout juror as a sign of a corrupt justice system. He believes a death penalty opponent managed to sneak onto the panel as a “stealth juror.” But the judge and the prosecutor defended the jury and said Sullivan’s accusation was based on “speculation.”
Still, many of the victims say they feel cheated, and they appeared to seek comfort in demonizing a defendant who took so much from them. A man whose son was gunned down in the theater referred to Holmes’ schizophrenia as “a mental hangnail” and said he was disgusted during the trial by his “smirk.” He called Holmes’ attorneys “horrible people” and said they “fabricated a defense” to pad their resumes.
Beth Craft, whose brother John Larimer was killed, said, “The defendant may be mentally ill, but he is more evil than anything else.”
Kraft said she and Larimer were among five siblings. When her family was “whole,” they were always there for each other, she added. She’s saddened that her brother died alone in that theater, away from family and surrounded by the blood and bodies of strangers.
“My innocent way of viewing the world is gone.”
Amee Gharbi, whose son Yousef survived after being shot in the head, referred in her testimony to Holmes’ skewed “life capital” theory, in which he counted each life he took as a point, adding value to his own:
“Despite what one self-absorbed, heartless killer tried to do, in the end we won,” Gharbi said. “In the end we wound up with the most points. We have the most self-worth. Game over.”
Aurora Police Commander Michael Dailey, whose officers responded to the bloodbath in Theater 9, was the first to call Holmes a monster, saying he should be locked away and forgotten. “I hope that every day is painful for him. I hope that prison is not kind to him,” Dailey said. “I hope prison gives him his just rewards.”
But at least one person didn’t see Holmes as a monster. He was much, much worse, said Michelle Thuis, who lived in Holmes’ apartment building. She was awakened the morning of the shooting by police banging on the door of his boobytrapped apartment.
“The defendant is not a monster. A monster is just a beast,” she told the court. “The defendant is selfish in a way only humans can be.”
Bonnie Kate Pourciau burst into tears when she learned the jury had spared Holmes’ life, her mother, Kathleen, said in her victim impact statement. Holmes’ bullets shattered Bonnie Kate’s kneecap, and she still experiences excruciating pain from damaged nerves. Doctors say it won’t go away and can only get worse.
The trial, Kathleen Pourciau said, was like watching someone get away with something. It felt out of whack, unbalanced. It didn’t feel like justice.
“When justice isn’t served, there’s a brutal message delivered to the victims,” she said. “When the punishment doesn’t fit the crime, the message to the victims is that your loss, your pain isn’t important. The message was that the state of Colorado values the life of a mass murderer more than the people he murdered.
“How many people do you have to kill to get the death penalty?” Pourciau asked. “Why do you even have a death penalty if you don’t use it? What signal does this sentence send to Bonnie Kate and others? We care, but not that much?”
A sentence of 12 life terms topped by hundreds of additional years behind bars is “absurd,” she added, “the judicial equivalent of beating a dead horse.”
Judge defends legal process
Not every victim who spoke Monday saw a death sentence for Holmes as the only just outcome. But all seemed to struggle with the idea that the man who walked on July 20, 2012, into a movie theater bent on killing was spared while their loved ones were not.
“He callously delivered a death sentence to our daughter and 11 other innocent people,” said Lonnie Phillips, whose 24-year-old daughter, aspiring sportscaster Jessica Ghawi, was killed.
Although Phillips was not among those clamoring for a death sentence for Holmes, he agrees with the others: “If any murderer in our history deserves to die, it’s him.”
He reminded the judge and everyone in the courtroom that the people in the movie theater died horribly.
“Jessica was shot six times,” Phillips said. “The kill shot left a 5-inch hole in her left eye.” He added that his wife, Sandy, wakes each morning “thinking about how our daughter died, with her brains blown out on the theater floor.”
Alex Teves was shot in the forehead as he leaped up to protect “the love of his life,” his father said. Alex’s girlfriend survived, Tom Teves said, but his son “took a bullet in a full metal jacket in the forehead. Death was instantaneous.”
“This coward ambushed innocent people,” Teves said.
Judge Carlos A. Samour Jr., who presided over the trial, defended the legal process – and the jury’s decision. He explained that while the jury decided Holmes’ punishment for killing 12 people, he must pass sentence on more than 140 other counts – including attempted murder and weapons offenses.
“You can’t claim there was no justice because it wasn’t the outcome you expected,” Samour told Pourciau and the others. Justice is never results-based. The jury worked long and hard to reach an impartial decision and that, he said, is justice.
About 100 people have asked to address the court before the judge formally hands down his sentence on Wednesday, prosecutors said.
Holmes, dressed in red jailhouse scrubs, rocked gently in his seat at the defense table, as he did throughout his trial. He will be given an opportunity to address the court but has so far declined to speak.
Many of the people who addressed the court on Monday spoke of the shooting as a “massacre” of innocents. Three years later, many speak of feeling lost and depressed. Some can no longer work, and many haven’t had a good night’s sleep since.
Greg Medek, whose 23-year-old daughter Micayla was among the dead, fought tears and it was difficult to hear him at times as he described his struggle with overwhelming grief and anger.
“This comes off as a bit negative, but it’s how I feel every day,” Medek said.
“The past haunts you to the point of exhaustion. Nothing brings you a sense of happiness. He didn’t have the right to take her from me,” Medek said. “People tell you, ‘It’s been three years, you should be over it by now. C’mon, what’s wrong with you?’”
But, he said sobbing, there’s a hole in his life that he can’t fill.
“It’s like something’s missing. I don’t want to be close to anyone else in case this happens again.”
He has lost faith in God and country.
“My trust in the leadership of this country is gone,” he said. “I know the good Lord loves me. But I can’t sit in church like I used to. I can’t listen to it.”
Still, he believes his daughter is in heaven and hopes to join her some day.
“She’s waiting there for me and I have to make sure I get there. I can’t have all this hatred in my heart.”