AURORA, Colorado — She heard them call her son a monster. She heard them say he cheated fate and deserves to die for his crimes. On Tuesday, August 25th, the mother of a mass killer looked like the loneliest person in the world as she stood up in court and addressed the people her son has harmed. She said she prays for them to find some measure of peace.
Arlene Holmes is the mother of James Eagan Holmes, the mentally ill 27-year-old grad student who fatally shot 12 people and wounded 70 others at a midnight show of “The Dark Knight Rises.”
Holmes’ sentencing hearing, which enters its third and final day on Wednesday, revealed that the ripples of his violent act are lasting and reach far beyond the 82 people felled by his bullets.
Friends, mothers, fathers, siblings, aunts and cousins all spoke about a loss that seems bottomless. They talked about sleepless nights, fear of crowds and a heavy darkness that can consume them without warning. They talked about stepping over bodies to escape and of seeing loved ones covered with blood. One mother talked about how she saw her daughter’s organs exposed and wrapped in plastic as she lay on a hospital gurney, awaiting surgery that saved her life.
Arlene Holmes told the shooting victims and their family members that she’d heard what they had to say.
‘We cannot feel the depth of your pain’
“We are in a unique and unenviable position because we cry for James and we cry for thousands of people in Aurora,” Holmes said. “We cannot feel the depth of your pain. We can only listen to everything you have expressed, and we pray for you. We pray for your peace, your peace with the sentence. We pray for your ability to sleep at night, and your ability to find a single moment of happiness when that happiness seems completely elusive.”
She apologized, saying she is “very sorry that this tragedy happened and that everyone has suffered so much.” And, she said, her son, diagnosed as schizophrenic, is sorry, too.
“He said he feels remorse for his horrible actions,” Holmes said. “But his ability to express his emotions has been impaired by disease and medication and we know it is very, very hard for people to see.”
Holmes said she and her husband, Robert, have spent the three years since the shooting massacre learning about mental illness. She said she regrets not knowing more about mental illness or seeing the signs in her son as he entered his teens. She wished she’d known that when he isolated himself from other people, that’s when he most needed help.
“We should have known our family history better,” she said. Relatives on both sides of the family, most notably her husband’s twin sister, have been hospitalized in the past with mental illness, according to trial testimony.
James Holmes has been convicted of 24 counts of murder — two for each person he killed at the Century 16 multiplex in Aurora, Colorado, on July 20, 2012. The jury could not agree on a death sentence; there was a lone holdout. As a result, Holmes will spend the rest of his life in prison.
The sentencing hearing was held to address Holmes’ sentence for the other charges he was convicted of — attempted murder and explosives counts. Judge Carlos A. Samour Jr. is expected to formally impose sentence on Wednesday morning.
Nearly 100 people testified or offered victim impact statements that were read into the record. Monday belonged to the wounded and close relatives of the dead. On Tuesday, the circle of witnesses expanded to include people traumatized by what they saw in the theater.
Veteran detective: Nothing can match this horror
A veteran Aurora homicide detective said nothing he has seen or expects to see can match the horror he witnessed inside that movie theater.
“All homicides are tragic,” Detective Craig Appel said. “This case has affected me and colleagues more than any other. Usually in homicide cases, you deal with people who became victims because they made bad decisions. But these were innocent victims. How can one guy hurt so many people?”
The hurt came in many forms. Some of the scars weren’t physical, perhaps, but they can’t be easily erased.
“No one should ever have to see the lifeless, blood-soaked body of a 6-year-old girl,” said Mallory Baker, who went to the movie with her father. The 6-year-old was the shooting’s youngest victim, Veronica Moser-Sullivan.
Stephanie Davies told her mother, Erin Christen, that being inside the theater “was like being in the mouth of hell.” She and a friend played dead until the shooting stopped. And then she climbed over bodies to reach her injured friend.
“The maximum sentence for the maximum evil, your honor,” prosecutor George Brauchler insisted. “What that guy did he should not be spared one year, one month, one day, of what the maximum available sentence is.”
Brauchler said he is disappointed that the jury did not return a death sentence but respects the jury’s decision. Still, he said, only a maximum sentence would acknowledge what the victims endured.
“When death walked into Theater 9, this guy attempted to murder everything that he lacked and everything that he wasn’t — courage, bravery, selflessness,” Brauchler said.
Defense attorney Daniel King said Holmes’ legal team will not be filing any appeals. He pointed out that Holmes offered early on to plead guilty if prosecutors took the death penalty off the table.
And now, following a long and horrific trial, Holmes faces the same fate he would have had he entered that guilty plea.
“We most humbly respect the suffering of the victims in this case,” King said. “It pains us beyond measure that some of these folks may perceive any of our actions as being directed against them in any way at all. It has never been our intention to reharm, reinjure or retraumatize anyone.”
But it was Arlene Holmes whose words stood out on yet another day of tears, sadness and raw emotion as she vowed to continue to work to raise awareness of mental health issues.
“I have heard people say mass shooting cannot be prevented,” she said. “I do not wish to succumb to this defeatist attitude. I promise everyone we will continue to educate people.”