Theater shooting jurors sob, cite religion, call insanity a ‘cop out’ during individual questioning

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Sketch of Aurora theater shooter James Holmes.

CENTENNIAL, Colo. — After the first day of individual juror questioning in the Aurora theater shooting trial saw the court retain far more jurors than expected, the second day produced similar results.

Things began slow in the Thursday morning session inside the Arapahoe County District Court, with five jurors being questioned instead of the typical six due to one juror apparently failing to check the court website and therefore failing to report for duty. And of those five jurors, just one was retained and asked to return for group questioning, which is tentatively scheduled to begin in May.

But in the afternoon session, four of the six jurors questioned were retained, and will be called back to the court for group questioning.

The majority of the jurors released during Thursday’s individual questioning session were excused due to financial hardship issues. Two jurors were also dismissed because of their personal beliefs, with one white woman in her 20s indicating she felt the insanity defense was a “cop out” and another middle-aged white man indicating his religious beliefs would prevent him from being able to issue a death sentence. Both jurors indicated they would not be able to set their strong opinions aside and follow the duties the law would require of them in this case.

Though they did not provide reasons for their beliefs, two more jurors were dismissed during the afternoon session after saying they could not remain impartial due to strong stances against the death penalty.

RELATED: Complete theater shooting trial coverage

The court had indicated a hope that 1.6 jurors could be retained per day of individual questioning. But on Wednesday, the first day of this jury selection phase, seven of the 12 jurors called before the court were retained. And only one of the five dismissed jurors was excused due to financial hardship reasons.

Along those same lines, the one juror who was retained during Thursday morning’s session was only asked to return pending confirmation from her employer as to whether she would be paid for the duration of the lengthy trial, which could last up to six months. Given that most employers don’t offer more than two weeks of compensation for jury duty, it seems reasonable to expect she may be excused due to financial hardship, as she indicated she is the sole provider for two children.

That same juror, a middle-aged white woman, was also the first to break down in the jury box over the course of two days. Initially, she said her tears were due to nervousness. But after she said she felt the murder of a child might be an aggravating factor that she would use to lean towards the death penalty in a sentencing hearing, defense attorney Daniel King pressed her for details.

In particular, King mentioned the fact that one of the victims in the July 2012 Aurora theater shooting was indeed a child, at which point the juror began to sob. When King asked why she was crying, the woman said simply, “It’s just so sad.”

Another juror who was retained for group questioning, interestingly enough, had been previously sentenced to prison after being convicted by Arapahoe County Deputy District Attorney Rich Orman, who is also a member of the prosecution in this case. Though it would seem he might hold a grudge against Orman, the juror, a middle-aged black man, indicated he did not.

Not only did he not hold a grudge, the man indicated he would be able to be an impartial juror in this case due to his experiences with the justice system and the fact that he believes “you can’t judge a book by its cover.”

One of the jurors who was excused after admitting before the court that he disagreed with the death penalty was the first to indicate he would be unable to sentence an individual to death even if that was what the law required of him.

The juror, a middle-aged man sporting a t-shirt that read “Original Dirt Bag, Arizona”, ascribed his stance against the death penalty to his “beliefs as a Christian.” This prompted defense attorney Tamara Brady to approach the bench, where, she later divulged, she asked permission to ask the juror if he was Catholic.

Brady told the court she felt the question was relevant due to what she called the Catholic church’s stance against capitol punishment. She indicated a fear that the prosecution would move to dismiss all Catholics from the jury pool due to their perceived stance against the death penalty.

Citing a mountain of past case law and certain articles of the Colorado and U.S. constitutions, Brady indicated her belief that the court had no authority to dismiss any jurors on the basis of religion.

The prosecution objected to Brady’s argument for several reasons and Arapahoe County District Court Judge Carlos Samour ultimately did the same, saying this juror was being released not because of his religious beliefs, but because he said he would not be able to do what the law required of him.

Samour added to the record that it was his understanding, after reading remarks from Pope Francis, that the Catholic church had issued no blanket condemnations of the death penalty. And that in certain cases, especially in regard to public safety, the Catholic church doesn’t even oppose it.

That wasn’t the only moment of dissent during the morning session between the prosecution and the defense for James Holmes, the admitted gunman in the Aurora theater shooting that left 12 dead and 70 others injured. In fact, the morning began with the defense entering a series of objections into the record.

Among those objections was the idea that the judge’s inherent authority in speaking with the jurors before the attorneys were allowed to question them was “tainting” juror responses. Defense attorney Kristen Nelson indicated she felt jurors were feeling pressured to say they would uphold the law in the presence of the judge in spite of their own opinions on certain topics.

Samour overruled Nelson’s objection, saying this would mean jurors called before the court on Wednesday lied to both the prosecution and the defense during the entirety of the 20 minutes each side was given to question them.

“I refuse to believe that,” Samour said. “I found the jurors we spoke with (on Wednesday) to be intelligent people who showed up to do their civic duty.”

Furthermore, Samour indicated he has an obligation to speak with the jurors in order to better inform them about the process of sentencing, which in this case would be done by the jury if Holmes is found guilty of first-degree murder. In most cases, however, sentencing is typically handled by a judge.

Judges receive years of training before being trusted with the process of sentencing, Samour continued, so it was of paramount importance that the court do everything in its power to inform jurors of how the sentencing process works before allowing them to decide between the death penalty and life in prison without the possibility of parole should Holmes be found guilty.

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