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Jurors in Aurora theater shooting trial allowed to stay despite exposure to Lafayette shooting news

The Arapahoe County District Court in Centennial, Colo. (Brennan Linsley/AP)
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A judge in Colorado has determined that jurors debating the sentence of James Holmes, who was convicted of gunning down strangers inside a movie theater there in 2012, could remain in the jury despite seeing news about a more recent movie theater shooting spree.

Earlier this month, jurors found Holmes guilty of killing 12 people and wounding 70. Last week, just three days after the third anniversary of the attack, the jurors said they would consider the death penalty for Holmes. A few hours later, and about 1,100 miles away, moviegoers in Lafayette, La., were diving for cover as another gunman opened fire inside a theater.

The endless cycle of shooting rampages in this country is such that these events can essentially supplant one another in the news, as we move from a shocking burst of violence in Charleston, S.C., to the shocking burst of violence in Chattanooga, Tenn., to the shocking burst of violence in Lafayette, La.

[Another day, another massacre.]

It is less common for such tragedies to share headlines with trials related to similar massacres, since mass shooters often take their own lives and never make it to a courtroom. (Because this is the world in which we live, two jurors selected for the Aurora trial also have ties to the Columbine High School mass shooting.) In this case, the shooting in Lafayette was bound to draw comparisons to Aurora, owing to the type of venue, its proximity to the anniversary of the earlier attack and the ongoing Colorado trial.

Some relatives of Aurora victims responded to the Lafayette shooting in the immediate aftermath:

All of which raised the question of what effect, if any, this could have on the trial in Colorado.

On Monday, the judge overseeing the Aurora trial questioned jurors who saw coverage of the Lafayette shooting but decided that all of them could remain in the jury. This jury has already lost members as the trial has continued — last month, the judge also booted three jurors for seeing news stories about the case or hearing details about those stories.

[“Active shooter" incidents are happening more frequently]

Holmes was found guilty this month on all 165 counts he faced, shifting the trial into the penalty phase. In the first of what could be three segments, jurors agreed that prosecutors proved the aggravating factors needed for a death sentence.

Now, Holmes’s attorneys are attempting to present mitigating factors that would argue for life in prison without parole. They have argued throughout the trial that he was insane at the time of the shooting. On Monday, they called Holmes’s sister to the stand:

If the jurors agree that the mitigating factors outweigh the aggravating ones, Holmes will be sentenced to life in prison. If they disagree, the next phase will involve additional arguments before the jurors decide whether he deserves a death sentence.

A death sentence would be a rarity for Colorado, but a new poll suggests that it would be a popular decision in the state. Colorado voters said by a nearly two-to-one margin that they supported the death penalty for Holmes, rather than life in prison, according to a Quinnipiac University Poll released Monday.

Nearly two-thirds of voters (63 percent) said they supported a death sentence, compared with 32 percent who wanted to see Holmes face life in prison without parole.

While the death penalty is almost never used in Colorado (which has executed one inmate since 1976) and rarely handed down as a sentence (22 people were sentenced to death in Colorado between 1973 and 2013, according to the Justice Department), it has still had an eventful few years in the state.

During his 2010 campaign for office, Gov. John Hickenlooper (D), responding to a Denver Post questionnaire, said he thought the death penalty should be restricted but not eliminated. He told the Associated Press in 2012 that he was wrestling with whether it should be repealed, saying he had not made up his mind.

In 2013, a bill abolishing the death penalty was axed by state lawmakers after Hickenlooper spoke against the legislation. That same year, though, he granted a reprieve for Nathan Dunlap, who was sentenced to death for fatally shooting four people at an Aurora Chuck E. Cheese in 1993.

Hickenlooper wrote in his executive order that he was not granting the reprieve “out of compassion or sympathy,” but because he was questioning whether the death penalty should be used at all. Last year, Hickenlooper said he had changed his mind and now opposes the death penalty.

Still, even as at least one of Colorado’s neighbors recently abolished the death penalty (a fight that does not appear to be over and may wind up on the ballot there), people in Colorado strongly oppose abolishing the death penalty.

Voters told Quinnipiac that they strongly support retaining the death penalty (67 percent feel this way, compared with 26 percent who want it abolished). That is more support than the death penalty has nationwide. A majority of Americans (56 percent) say they favor the death penalty, a number that has solidly declined over the past two decades.

In Colorado, though, despite the Aurora trial and the political discussion, public opinion has not really moved much in recent years. In June 2013, nearly the same number of people supported keeping the death penalty (69 percent) and abolishing it (24 percent). The number of people who support a death sentence for Holmes has declined by a slightly larger margin since June 2013, falling to 63 percent from 67 percent, while support for life in prison has risen to 32 percent from 26 percent.


The state Supreme Court justice who stepped down to protest the death penalty

How the death penalty continued its slow, steady decline in 2014

Most Americans support the death penalty. They also agree that an innocent person might get put to death.