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Jurors move closer to considering a death sentence in Aurora movie theater shooting trial

Arapahoe County District Court, where the trial continues. (Brennan Linsley/AP)
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The jury that found James Holmes guilty of shooting and killing a dozen people inside a Colorado movie theater has turned its attention to the next question in the trial: Should he face life in prison or a death sentence?

On Thursday, a week after finding Holmes guilty of each of the 165 charges he faced, jurors agreed that prosecutors had proved the aggravating factors necessary for the death penalty.

Prosecutors are seeking a death sentence for Holmes, who was convicted of killing 12 people and wounding 70 others during a 2012 shooting spree inside an Aurora, Colo., movie theater showing “The Dark Knight Rises.” His attorneys, meanwhile, are trying to convince the jury that they should instead send him to prison without the possibility of parole.

While prosecutors in this case argue that Holmes carefully planned and carried out the shooting, his attorneys insisted that he was legally insane at the time of the shooting and have blamed mental illness.

In Colorado, first-degree murder can be punished with death or with life in prison without possibility of parole. The penalty phase, which began Wednesday, can have three segments before a sentence is handed down.

The first phase asks jurors to determine whether the prosecutors proved beyond a reasonable doubt that at least one aggravating factor is present in the case. Prosecutors presented aggravating factors including killing two or more people during a single crime and carrying out “an especially heinous, cruel or depraved” murder.

Jurors found four of the five aggravating factors on each of the 24 first-degree murder counts in the case (two for each of the victims), though they did not agree that prosecutors proved that Holmes intentionally killed a child younger than 12.  Had they not agreed unanimously on these factors, they would have had to sentence Holmes to life in prison without parole.

Instead, their decision Thursday allowed the case to proceed to the next phase, when Holmes’s attorneys will present mitigating factors, which are things that would argue for a life sentence.

“We are not going to ask you to forgive Mr. Holmes,” defense attorney Rebekka Higgs told jurors, according to the Associated Press. “We are going to ask you for your compassion and mercy.”

At the end of this phase, jurors will have to determine whether the mitigating factors outweigh the aggravating ones. If they think this is the case, Holmes is sentenced to life in prison. If they disagree, the trial moves on to the third phase, which allows both sides to present more information and make closing arguments. Only then would the jurors deliberate to determine whether Holmes deserves a death sentence on any of the first-degree murder charges.

If Holmes is sentenced to death, it would be unusual for the state. Death sentences are rare in Colorado, which has three inmates on death row and has carried out only one execution since 1976.

Before the trial began, Holmes’s parents pleaded for their son’s life, arguing that he should be imprisoned for the rest of his life rather than executed.

“We do not know how many victims of the theater shooting would like to see our son killed,” Robert and Arlene Holmes wrote in a letter published by the Denver Post. “But we are aware of people’s sentiments. We have read postings on the Internet that have likened him to a monster. He is not a monster. He is a human being gripped by a severe mental illness.”

Court officials say the entire penalty phase could last as long as a month.

Meanwhile, District Judge Carlos A. Samour Jr. released an order Wednesday sanctioning a media organization for its work during the trial. Samour banned Newsweek reporters from the courtroom for publishing a juror’s name.