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Lawyers in Colorado shooting case to challenge insanity defense law

Accused Aurora theater shooting suspect James Holmes listens at his arraignment in Centennial, Colorado March 12, 2013. REUTERS/R.J. Sangost
Accused Aurora theater shooting suspect James Holmes listens at his arraignment in Centennial, Colorado March 12, 2013. REUTERS/R.J. Sangost

By Keith Coffman

DENVER (Reuters) - Public defenders representing James Holmes, accused of killing 12 moviegoers in Colorado last summer, will return to court on Thursday to challenge the state's insanity defense law in a bid to try to avoid the death penalty for their client.

Lawyers representing Holmes, 25, are challenging Colorado's capital punishment statute on several fronts, and on Thursday are arguing that it unconstitutionally bars him from calling his own mental health experts at sentencing if he refuses to cooperate with court-appointed psychiatrists.

Holmes, a former graduate student, is charged with multiple counts of first-degree murder and attempted murder and prosecutors are seeking the death penalty if he is convicted.

Arapahoe County District Judge Carlos Samour Jr. ruled last week that he would hear the defense arguments.

Holmes is accused of spraying gunfire inside an Aurora, Colorado, movie theater in July 2012 during a midnight screening of the Batman film "The Dark Knight Rises."

The shooting rampage killed 12 moviegoers and wounded 58 others. Another dozen people were injured fleeing the theater when the shooting erupted.

Holmes' attorneys contend in a written motion that compelling him to reveal information that could be used against him at trial or at sentencing if he is convicted violates his right against self-incrimination, especially in a capital case.

"The statute as it is written forces counsel to make decisions about how to advise their client without knowing what type of examination their client will be forced to undergo ... how the results of this can be used ... or what behavior or actions by their client may in turn severely restrict their ability to present mitigating factors on his behalf," the motion stated.

Prosecutors contend that state and federal courts have upheld the legality of the statute.

"It is well established law in Colorado that submitting to court-ordered evaluations does not violate a defendant's Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination," prosecutors said in a written pleading.

In March, then-presiding Judge William Sylvester entered a standard not guilty plea for Holmes, but allowed his attorneys to change that to not guilty by reason of insanity.

Samour, who took over the case in April, has ruled that there was "good cause" for Holmes' lawyers to change the plea.

However, Samour said he could not rule on whether he would accept it until certain legal issues were resolved so he could properly advise Holmes of the ramifications of an insanity plea.

(Editing by David Bailey and Lisa Shumaker)

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