James Holmes in 2013
CENTENNIAL, Colo. — In a decision that surprised many in this community, a jury sentenced James E. Holmes on Friday to life in prison with no chance of parole, rejecting the death penalty for the man who carried out a 2012 shooting rampage that killed 12 people in a Colorado movie theater.
As the courtroom waited for Judge Carlos Samour Jr. to review the verdict, only the sound of him turning pages could be heard. Family members of the dead who sat through three months of wrenching, sometimes grisly testimony held hands and closed their eyes. Mr. Holmes stood flanked by his lawyers, one of them holding his arm. A few feet away, his parents stood up to see better and gripped each other.
Then the judge read each sentence of life, noting that jurors were unable to reach a unanimous verdict on any of the counts against Mr. Holmes. In Colorado, death sentences must be unanimous. If even one person dissents, the sentence is life in prison.
“There was nothing further to discuss at that point,” Juror 17 said. “It only takes one.”
Mr. Holmes showed little emotion as the sentence was read, standing before the judge with his hands in his pockets even as his mother collapsed into her husband. One of the police officers who had responded to the attack at the theater sobbed, while others sat stoically.
Some families in the gallery cried quietly or slumped in their chairs; one man stormed out of the courtroom. Many had wanted death for the man responsible for so much carnage, but others had said they simply wanted the ordeal to be over, and had hoped to avoid the years of appeals that a death sentence would bring and focus instead on their families and memories of loved ones.
Afterward, some family members expressed anger, with the grandfather of a slain 6-year-old girl saying he suspected that a death-penalty foe had infiltrated the jury. Others said the mere passing of a sentence, whether for life or death, was never going to bring them closure or an end to missing their sons and daughters.
“Our lives are forever altered,” said Sandy Phillips, whose daughter, Jessica Ghawi, was killed. Ms. Phillips said it was difficult to think of her daughter’s killer getting letters in prison, but “that is what it is.”
Dave Hoover, whose nephew A. J. Boik was killed, said the process of grieving together and wading through the long trial over three years had made a family out of the people from Illinois, Arizona, Texas, Colorado and beyond whose loved ones had been killed. “We’re going to have a little more pain, a little more hurt in our lives,” he told reporters outside the courthouse. “But the sun will come up.”
Some family members were clearly disappointed.
“He’s still living and breathing,” said Robert Sullivan, grandfather of Veronica Moser-Sullivan, 6, the youngest killed that night. “Our loved ones are gone.”
Since Mr. Holmes was convicted last month of more than 160 counts of murder and attempted murder, his lawyers and prosecutors have been putting questions of his fate before the jury of nine women and three men.
Prosecutors, emphasizing the human toll and indiscriminate cruelty of opening fire on a happy crowd of moviegoers, argued that he should join the three other men on Colorado’s death row. In an earlier court filing, defense lawyers said they had offered to plead guilty in exchange for life in prison, but the district attorney, George Brauchler, pursued a capital trial, saying that in this case, “Justice is death.”
Prosecutors argued that the rampage was so horrible, and the toll Mr. Holmes exacted was so great, that death by lethal injection was the only just punishment.
After the verdict was read, execution opponents in Colorado criticized Mr. Brauchler’s decision to pursue the death penalty, saying it needlessly stretched out the legal process through a painful, three-month trial that cost millions of dollars.
“We are extremely disheartened by the wastefulness of the trial, which could have been avoided two years ago,” Christopher Decker, president of the Colorado Criminal Defense Bar, said in a statement.
Outside the courthouse, as clouds swept over, Mr. Brauchler said he was disappointed in the decision, and had apologized to the families of the victims for how the trial concluded.
But he said he still believed death was the appropriate sentence. He added that when the defense lawyers had made their plea offer two years ago, they had refused his requests to have Mr. Holmes examined by an independent mental-health expert, and had refused to turn over materials including his medical records and a spiral notebook in which he recorded his homicidal fantasies.
“They said, ‘You get none of it,’ ” he said.
Throughout the trial, defense lawyers said it had not been hatred or a desire for notoriety that propelled Mr. Holmes to plot and carry out the massacre, but a deepening form of schizophrenia that infected his mind with powerful delusions that killing people somehow increased his “human capital.”
The sentence surprised many because the jurors returned with their decision after just seven hours, and appeared united during previous deliberations. They found Mr. Holmes guilty after about 12 hours and had walked together to the precipice of sentencing him to death, agreeing after earlier sentencing deliberations that he was eligible to receive the death penalty.
But defense lawyers emphasized that jurors had no legal obligation to sentence him to death, and they urged jurors to listen to their own moral compasses, no matter what other jurors wanted.
Two court-appointed psychiatrists who examined Mr. Holmes — and who testified for prosecutors during the guilt phase of his trial — concluded that he was mentally ill. But, they said, he was able to know his actions were wrong when just after midnight on July 20, 2012, he strode into Theater 9 in suburban Aurora, clad in black body armor and armed with tear-gas canisters, a shotgun, a handgun and an assault rifle, and began spraying the crowd with ammunition he had amassed over several weeks. Nevertheless, the doctors said the shooting most likely would never have happened if not for Mr. Holmes’s mental illness. The defense seized on that point in arguing to spare his life.
The shooting during a midnight premiere of a Batman movie, “The Dark Knight Rises,” was one of the worst mass attacks in Colorado, a state also scarred by the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School. It turned a midnight movie filled with teenagers and families into a bloody melee in which victims fell between the seats and boyfriends died shielding their girlfriends. Seventy people were wounded, including some who now are paralyzed, walk with canes or live with nightmares and bolts of pain.
The families of victims said they wanted to keep their focus and any public attention on the lives of their loved ones, and on the dozens of survivors grappling with chronic pain and coping with nightmares and grief. As for the man who did it, Ms. Phillips’s husband, Lonnie Phillips, said, “We want him to go into oblivion.”