By Keith Coffman
CENTENNIAL, Colo. (Reuters) - The murder trial for the man charged with shooting 12 people to death at a Denver-area movie theater was postponed indefinitely on Thursday to deal with requests by prosecutors for further mental evaluations of the accused gunman.
James Holmes, 25, a former graduate student of neuroscience, had been slated to go on trial in February for the July 2012 massacre of moviegoers during a midnight screening of the Batman film "The Dark Knight Rises."
Earlier this year, Holmes had an extensive court-ordered psychological examination at a state mental health hospital after pleading not guilty by reason of insanity. But the findings of that review have been kept confidential.
Prosecutors filed a motion under seal this week seeking further mental tests to address an issue that Arapahoe County District Attorney George Brauchler referred to as "completely unexpected." He did not elaborate in court.
But Brauchler added that prosecutors were not disputing two of three conclusions reached by the state mental health evaluators and were not requesting a second, full-blown exam. Instead, prosecutors want Holmes evaluated again by two experts for the limited purposes spelled out in their sealed motion.
While not ruling on the motion itself, Judge Carlos Samour vacated the February trial date and said he would push back some pretrial proceedings scheduled for December to make time for further pleadings on Brauchler's request.
"I'm not going to rush any issue," Samour said.
Colorado case law prohibits a judge from ordering a second mental health review for a defendant who invokes an insanity defense, leading some legal observers to speculate that the issue raised by prosecutors may pertain to Holmes' competency.
Competency deals with a defendant's current state of mind, and whether the accused is fit to understand the proceedings against him and assist in his own defense.
Sanity has to do with his mental state at the time of the crime, specifically whether the defendant was capable of telling right from wrong.
'VIRTUALLY UNHEARD OF'
Defense lawyers said they would oppose any further, court-ordered evaluations.
"It is virtually unheard of, what is being requested," public defender Tamara Brady told the judge. "There is no provision for it in the law."
Holmes is charged with multiple counts of first-degree murder and attempted murder for opening fire in a crowded movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, killing 12 people and wounding 70 others, in one of the deadliest outbursts of gun violence in U.S. history.
Prosecutors have said they intend to seek the death penalty if he is convicted.
Defense attorneys said in previous court filings that Holmes was in the midst of "a psychotic episode" when he went on the shooting frenzy, and he has been hospitalized for mental health issues at least twice since his arrest.
In one instance, Holmes was transported from his jail cell to a psychiatric ward in Denver, where his lawyers said he was held "frequently in restraints" for multiple days.
They have also said he should not be executed if convicted for murder because he suffers from a chronic mental illness.
A series of hearings on capital punishment motions filed by the defense was scheduled for December, but the judge said he wanted the second evaluation matter litigated before proceeding.
Holmes was at Thursday's hearing at the courthouse in Centennial, Colorado, where he sat impassively as usual, wearing a red jumpsuit and shackles.
(Reporting by Keith Coffman; Editing By Steve Gorman, Cynthia Johnston and Peter Cooney)