By Keith Coffman

CENTENNIAL, Colo. (Reuters) - Accused Colorado gunman James Holmes may have phoned h is former university just nine minutes before last month's shooting at a midnight screening of "The Dark Knight Rises" that killed 12 people, his lawyer said on Thursday.

In a pretrial hearing, defense attorney Tamara Brady raised the possibility of such a call while questioning Dr. Lynne Fenton, a University of Colorado psychiatrist w h o treated Holmes in the month before the July 20 movie house shooting.

"Did you know that James Holmes called that number nine minutes before the shooting started?" Brady asked Fenton, referring to a campus number noted on a form related to Holmes' mental health treatment.

Fenton responded that she did not know.

Holmes, a former neuroscience graduate student who dropped out of the University of Colorado in June, is accused of opening fire at a premiere of the latest Batman film in Aurora, Colorado. Fifty-eight people were also wounded.

Prosecutors portray Holmes, 24, as a young man whose once promising academic career was in tatters after he failed key oral exams in June and one of his professors suggested he may not have been a good fit for the competitive program.

Defense attorneys have said that he suffers from a mental illness and tried to get help before the shooting.

Holmes attended the hearing, his hair still dyed bright red and orange, but did not address the court.

The hearing on Thursday was called by Arapahoe County District Judge William Sylvester to determine whether prosecutors can examine a package Holmes mailed to Fenton one day before the shooting, containing a notebook.

PLEA FOR HELP?

The parcel was not found until several days later and defense lawyers argue that the contents fall under doctor-client privilege between Holmes and Fenton.

That question may turn on whether Holmes was still formally a patient of Fenton at the time. The psychiatrist said during her testimony that she considered their doctor-patient relationship to have ended on June 11.

The hearing adjourned for the day before Sylvester finished taking evidence on the issue, although the judge indicated he would likely rule in favor of the defense. The proceedings are scheduled to resume on September 20.

In raising the phone call, legal experts say defense lawyers were hoping to establish not only that Holmes was still a patient of Fenton, but was making a last-minute plea for help.

"That's the defense spin," said former Denver prosecutor Craig Silverman, who is following the case, adding that prosecutors may portray the call in more sinister terms.

Under cross-examination by prosecutors, Fenton said the phone number did not go directly to her, only to a campus operator.

Fenton also said during her testimony that before the shooting, she alerted a campus police officer to her concerns about her patient. Prosecutors told the court last week that Holmes had made threats that were reported to police.

They have said Holmes lost his access to the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus after making unspecified threats to a professor on June 12, after which he began a voluntary withdrawal from his program.

Prosecutors said Holmes began "a detailed and complex plan" to commit murder and obtain an arsenal of guns and protective armor after he was denied access to campus facilities. (Additional reporting by Mary Slosson and Dan Whitcomb; Writing by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Peter Cooney)