DENVER (AP/CBS4) — The parents of James Holmes pleaded Friday for his life to be spared if he is convicted of killing 12 people and injuring 70 others after opening fire in an Aurora movie theater.

The plea incensed some survivors of the attack and relatives of people killed. They questioned the timing of the parents’ statement around the holidays, just weeks before the trial of Holmes is set to begin.

Robert and Arlene Holmes attend the court hearing for their son James Holmes on March 12, 2013 (credit: CBS)

Robert and Arlene Holmes attend the court hearing for their son James Holmes on March 12, 2013 (credit: CBS)

Robert and Arlene Holmes said in their statement released to the media that their son is mentally ill and they do not want him to be executed.

“He is not a monster. He is a human being gripped by a severe mental illness,” they wrote. Read the full letter below.

Melisa Cowden, whose ex-husband Gordon Cowden was killed in the shooting, called the statement comical and said she is upset that Holmes’ parents have not apologized for what happened.

“He’s not mentally ill,” Cowden said.

Marcus Weaver who was shot in the arm and had a friend killed in the attack, asked why the parents waited three years to make their plea at Christmastime.

“People are hurting,” he said, calling the statement a ploy by defense lawyers to manipulate the jury pool and generate “sympathy for a man who has done a horrific thing.”

“For his parents to send us an apology letter three years later is an insult,” Weaver said. “It would have been better if they had said nothing at all.”

Other victims and family members said the Holmes’ statement has only refueled their anger.

Ian Sullivan would be celebrating his daughter’s ninth birthday on Dec. 23. Veronica Moser-Sullivan was 6 when she was killed in the shooting.

“I do not feel anything shy of the death penalty is adequate for this situation,” he said.

He said he also questions the timing of the statement — a month before jury selection is set to begin.

“I just do think that it’s a low-ball strategic plan. I feel like it’s trying to stir up emotion that’s unnecessary and sway part of the jury,” Sullivan said.

He said he doesn’t believe Holmes’ parents should have a say.

“We, the taxpayers of Colorado, me, the victim of this crime — we are the ones who are funding his defense,” he said.

Prosecutors, who are under a gag order, declined to comment, saying it would hurt the fairness and integrity of the trial.

Holmes has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity to the charges filed after the 2012 attack at the theater in Aurora, outside Denver. Jury selection is scheduled to start Jan. 20.

His parents, who live in Rancho Penasquitos, California, say they want to avoid a traumatic trial. One option would be a deal that calls for a guilty plea in exchange for a sentence of life in prison without parole, they said.

“If that happened, our son would be in prison the rest of his life, but no one would have to relive those horrible events at a trial the media has permission to televise,” the parents wrote.

They say the best option would be sending their son to an institution for the mentally ill, which could happen if he is found not guilty by reason of insanity.

Holmes’ parents say they have spent every moment since the shooting thinking about the victims and their families and friends.

“We are always praying for everyone in Aurora. We wish that July 20, 2012, never happened,” they wrote.

The statement was the first public comment by Holmes’ parents about the shooting since they made brief comments through a lawyer expressing support for their son immediately after the attack.

They have not disclosed details of their son’s condition or whether they had any warning that he might become violent.

“I think the parents have decided that now is the appropriate time to let people know how they feel and they would like their son to be kept alive,” legal analyst Karen Steinhauser told CBS4.

Meanwhile, organizers of a permanent memorial that will honor the victims of the shooting are seeking donations. The group, called the 7-20 Memorial Foundation, hopes to create a garden as part of the Aurora Municipal Center Xeriscape Garden at Alameda Avenue and Chambers Road.

LINK: 7-20 Memorial Foundation

Here is the complete letter from Holmes’ parents to media outlets:

“We are Robert and Arlene Holmes and our son is James Holmes. We have spent every moment for more than two years thinking about those who were injured, and the families and friends of the deceased who were killed in the theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado. We are always praying for everyone in Aurora. We wish that July 20, 2012 never happened. Our son pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity to the charges associated with these shootings.

“Defense attorneys for our son first stated in open court in May 2013 that James was diagnosed in Colorado with a serious mental illness. Prior to July 20, 2012, he never harmed anyone and he had no criminal history.

“We understand that if our son is found not guilty by reason of insanity, he could go to an institution that provides treatment for the mentally ill for the remainder of his life. This result would prevent any future harm to him and others. We realize treatment in an institution would be best for our son. We love our son, we have always loved him and we do not want him to be executed. We also decry the need for a trial.

“A lengthy trial requires everyone to relive those horrible moments in time, causing additional trauma. In the criminal justice system, the prosecution and defense can agree to a sentence of life in prison, without parole, in exchange for a guilty plea. If that happened, our son would be in prison the rest of his life, but no one would have to relive those horrible events at a trial the media has permission to televise. We do not know how many victims of the theater shooting would like to see our son killed. 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. We believe that the death penalty is morally wrong, especially when the condemned is mentally ill.

“We are not alone in our sentiments. The Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights (MVFHR), an international organization of family members of murder victims and family members of the executed, and the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) formed the “Prevention, Not Execution Project” aimed at ending the death penalty for people with severe mental illness.

“Our family has not given interviews to the media because we do not want coverage of ourselves. We mourn the deaths and the serious injuries and emotional trauma of the others who were in the theater. The focus should be on the injured and their healing.”

By SADIE GURMAN, Associated Press

(TM and © Copyright 2014 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2014 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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