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Theater Shooting Victim-Witnesses Can Attend Trial

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James Holmes in court in June 2013 (credit: CBS)

James Holmes in court in June 2013 (credit: CBS)

DENVER (AP) – Victims of the Colorado theater shootings can attend defendant James Holmes’ trial and pretrial hearings, even if they will be called to testify as prosecution witnesses, a judge ruled Wednesday.

Attorneys for Holmes had asked the judge to bar all prosecution witnesses from the proceedings. State court rules allow such exclusions to keep witnesses from hearing – and being influenced by – others’ testimony.

But Arapahoe County District Judge Carlos A. Samour Jr. said the rule, which has the backing of the state Supreme Court, is trumped by the victims’ rights section of the Colorado Constitution. A voter-approved provision allows victims of a crime to be present “at all critical stages” of court proceedings centering on the crime.

Holmes is accused of opening fire on an unsuspecting crowd of more than 400 people watching a midnight showing of a Batman movie in July 2012, in a theater in the Denver suburb of Aurora. Twelve people died and 70 were injured.

He pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity to more than 160 counts of murder and attempted murder. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.

Samour’s ruling acknowledged that the question of whether to allow victim-witnesses to be present during the trial and pretrial hearings was tricky, especially with Holmes’ life at stake.

“In this mass shooting case in which the prosecution seeks the death penalty, should the court exclude hundreds of victims from all the critical stages of the judicial proceedings?” he wrote. Referring to his own analysis and reasoning – which take up 27 pages – he wrote, “The court must answer ‘no.'”

Samour criticized the defense arguments, saying they “fall woefully short” and lacked substance, and he noted that Holmes’ lawyers never claimed that allowing victim-witnesses in the courtroom would threaten his right to fair trial.

The judge said that left him with the responsibility of considering whether Holmes’ rights would be violated, and he concluded they would not.

Among other things, Samour said, there is no evidence that victim-witnesses would influence others’ testimony, and the trial will focus more on Holmes’ sanity than on the details of the shooting.

Samour noted that the state constitution’s definition of a victim would apply to anyone who was in the same theater as Holmes as well as anyone in the adjacent theater, because some shots penetrated the wall separating them. Prosecutors have said about 750 people were in the two theaters.

Samour ruled that prosecution witnesses who were not victims cannot attend the trial or pretrial hearings.

LINK: Read The Ruling

- By Dan Elliott, AP Writer

(© Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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