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Accused Colorado movie theater gunman ordered to undergo new sanity exam

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) - The man charged with mass murder for a shooting rampage that killed 12 people in a suburban Denver movie theater must submit to a second pretrial sanity examination because the first was incomplete and inadequate, a Colorado judge ruled on Wednesday.

The second court-ordered exam will focus on James Holmes' state of mind at the time of the killings, not on his competency to stand trial, and on whether any mental illness precludes him from facing the death penalty if convicted.

Holmes, 26, a former graduate student of neuroscience, had been slated to go on trial this month for the July 2012 massacre of moviegoers during a midnight screening of the Batman film "The Dark Knight Rises."

But Arapahoe County District Court Judge Carlos Samour ruled in November that the trial be postponed indefinitely to deal with requests by prosecutors for further mental evaluations of the defendant.

Holmes underwent an extensive psychological examination at a state mental hospital last year after pleading not guilty by reason of insanity, meaning that prosecutors have the burden of showing he knew right from wrong at the time of the shooting.

Defense attorneys have acknowledged in previous court filings that Holmes committed the shooting frenzy but say he was in the midst of a "psychotic episode" at the time. They say he has been hospitalized for mental health issues at least twice since his arrest on the day of the shooting.

It was disclosed in court in December that the first sanity exam concluded Holmes was mentally fit, or competent, to stand trial, meaning he was deemed capable of understanding the proceedings and assisting in his own defense.

The original exam's finding as to his sanity at the time of the massacre has not been publicly revealed, but prosecutors are presumed to have disagreed with those conclusions in asking for a second review.

Indeed, Samour directed that the new exam re-evaluate the sanity question when he agreed with prosecutors that the first examination was "incomplete and inadequate."

The judge's reasoning in granting the prosecution's request has been redacted in the court records available to the public.

He ordered the state hospital to select "another psychiatrist or a forensic psychologist" by next month to conduct the new examination and to submit a report no later than July 11. A status conference on the case will be held sometime next week.

While the ruling appeared to be a victory for the state's attorney, the outcome of the second exam could undermine the prosecution's case if it reinforces the findings of the first, said Wil Smith, a longtime Colorado defense lawyer.

He noted that prosecutors lost their bid to hand-pick a new examiner of their choice.

"If the new evaluation clears up the deficiencies listed and it comes back with similar conclusions, the prosecution won't have those objections anymore," Smith said.

Holmes is charged with multiple counts of first-degree murder and attempted murder for opening fire during the crowded midnight screening in Aurora, Colorado, in one of the deadliest outbursts of gun violence by a lone gunman in U.S. history.

Prosecutors have said they intend to seek the death penalty if they win a conviction.

(Editing by Steve Gorman, Bernard Orr and Mohammad Zargham)

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