DENVER (AP/CBS4) – Prosecutors in the Colorado theater shooting on Thursday abruptly rejected an offer from suspect James Holmes to plead guilty in exchange for avoiding the death penalty and accused defense lawyers of a serious breach of court rules by making the offer public.
In a scathing court document, prosecutors said the defense has repeatedly refused to give them the information they need to evaluate the plea offer, so the offer can’t be considered genuine.
No plea agreement exists, prosecutors said, and one “is extremely unlikely based on the present information available to the prosecution.”
They also said anyone reading news stories about the offer would inevitably conclude “the defendant knows that he is guilty, the defense attorneys know that he is guilty, and that both of them know that he was not criminally insane.”
Neither the defense nor the prosecution immediately returned phone calls Thursday.
Holmes is charged with multiple counts of murder and attempted murder in the July 20 shootings in a packed theater in the Denver suburb of Aurora. Twelve people were killed and 70 were injured.
Holmes’ attorneys disclosed in a court filing Wednesday that their client has offered to plead guilty, but only if he wouldn’t be executed.
Prosecutors criticized defense attorneys for publicizing the offer, calling it a ploy meant to draw the public and the judge into what should be private plea negotiations.
Prosecutors did not say what information the defense refused to give them, but the two sides have argued in court previously about access to information about Holmes’ mental health.
CBS4 Legal Analyst Karen Steinhauser, a former prosecutor who is now a law professor at the University of Denver, said prosecutors clearly do not want to agree to a plea deal without knowing whether Holmes’ attorneys could mount a strong mental health defense.
“One of the issues the prosecution needs to look at is, is there a likelihood that doctors, and then a jury, could find that James Holmes was insane at the time of the crime?” she said.
Prosecutors also criticized comments to The Associated Press by Doug Wilson, who heads the state public defenders’ office.
“Both sides are under a tremendous amount of pressure and both sides are going to be doing what they believe is the appropriate thing to do,” said Steinhauser.
Wilson told the AP Wednesday that prosecutors had not responded to the offer and said he didn’t know whether prosecutors had relayed the offer with any victims as required by state law.
George Brauchler, the current Arapahoe County DA, is scheduled to announce Monday whether he will seek the death penalty for Holmes. Brauchler hasn’t publicly revealed his plans. He has refused repeatedly to comment on the case, citing the gag order and his spokesman didn’t immediately return a call Thursday evening.
Pierce O’Farrill, who was shot three times, said he would welcome an agreement that would imprison Holmes for life. The years of court struggles ahead would likely be an emotional ordeal for victims, he said.
“I don’t see his death bringing me peace,” O’Farrill said. “To me, my prayer for him was that he would spend the rest of his life in prison and hopefully, in all those years he has left, he could find God and ask for forgiveness himself.”
A plea bargain would bring finality to the case fairly early so victims and their families can avoid the prolonged trauma of not knowing what will happen, said Dan Recht, a past president of the Colorado Criminal Defense Bar.
“The defense, by making this public pleading, is reaching out to the victims’ families,” he said.
“Defense attorneys are going to file whatever motions they believe are appropriate and do what they need to do to save their clients life,” said Steinhauser.
She said the prosecution wants and needs more information before an offer like this can even be considered.
“This offer, this type of offer at this particular time is premature and that the prosecution is most likely going to seek the death penalty,” said Steinhauser.
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