Q&A: Sentencing starts for Colorado theater shooter

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Posted: Jul 22, 2015 7:13 PM
Q&A: Sentencing starts for Colorado theater shooter

CENTENNIAL, Colo. (AP) — Colorado theater shooter James Holmes' sentencing began Wednesday after jurors convicted him last week of first-degree murder, attempted murder and other charges in his July 20, 2012, attack that killed 12 people and injured 70. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty; the jury's other option is life without parole.

The penalty phase concerns the 24 first-degree murder convictions — two for each death. It could last another month, assuming survivors testify not just about their injuries but about the impact of the mass shooting on their lives. Here's a question-and-answer look at what happens next:

WHY WILL IT TAKE SO LONG?

There are three potential phases to sentencing in a Colorado death penalty case, and the jury decides at each stage whether to accept or reject arguments by the prosecution and the defense. It can end the proceedings at any stage.

Phase One was presented Wednesday as the prosecution argued that several aggravating factors were present in the massacre, including the killing of a child, in this case a 6-year-old girl; that Holmes was lying in wait before he opened fire; and the oversized number of victims involved.

The jury didn't reach a decision Wednesday on whether the state proved without a reasonable doubt that at least one of these aggravating factors was present. Deliberations resume Thursday.

THEN WHAT?

In the second phase, the defense will try to show that mitigating factors make it wrong to execute Holmes. Witnesses such as his parents, former classmates and neighbors will offer sympathetic testimony about Holmes' character and his life, as well as evidence that his mental illness makes him too sick to be executed.

The jury then deliberates again, to decide whether the mitigating factors outweigh aggravating factors.

If so, the trial could end there with Holmes sentenced to life in prison.

If not, a third phase will begin, with the prosecution calling victims and survivors to describe the impact of Holmes' crimes on their lives, before the jury makes its final decision on whether to impose the death penalty.

WHAT WILL IT TAKE FOR A DEATH SENTENCE?

The 12 jurors will use their own personal and moral values to guide them in sentencing. If they can't unanimously agree on punishment, Holmes will automatically be sentenced to life in prison.

WILL HOLMES TESTIFY?

Holmes can testify in each phase, or give an allocution statement, which would not be subject to cross-examination. He told the judge he did not want to testify or give a statement during the first phase.

WILL LIFE IN PRISON BE DIFFERENT THAN DEATH ROW?

Not significantly. In Colorado, death row inmates are generally assigned to a "management control unit" where they are able to mingle with prisoners serving other sentences, including those serving life without parole.