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Colorado theater massacre victims denied access to evidence for civil lawsuits

James Holmes sits in court for an advisement hearing at the Arapahoe County Justice Center in Centennial, Colorado June 4, 2013. REUTERS/And
James Holmes sits in court for an advisement hearing at the Arapahoe County Justice Center in Centennial, Colorado June 4, 2013. REUTERS/And

By Keith Coffman

DENVER (Reuters) - The Colorado Supreme Court has denied victims of the 2012 theater massacre access to evidence from the ongoing criminal case to use in their civil lawsuits against the cinema's owners, an order made public on Tuesday showed.

Victims have filed numerous lawsuits in both federal and state court against Texas-based Cinemark, stemming from the mass shooting at a suburban Denver cinema during a midnight screening of the Batman movie "The Dark Knight Rises."

In general, they claim Cinemark was aware of previous criminal activity at the multiplex in Aurora and failed to provide adequate security for its patrons.

The accused gunman, James Holmes, is charged with multiple counts of first-degree murder and attempted murder in the shootings that killed 12 moviegoers and injured 70 others.

Holmes, 26, has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity, and prosecutors will seek the death penalty for the California native, if he is convicted.

Arapahoe County District Court Judge Carlos Samour, who is presiding over the criminal case, had previously refused the civil lawyers' request, saying releasing the evidence could jeopardize Holmes' right to a fair trial.

But late last year, Samour postponed the criminal trial indefinitely after prosecutors moved to have the one-time neuroscience graduate student undergo a further sanity examination.

That ruling led the civil lawyers to petition the state's highest court to overrule Samour. To make their case, the victims said they need certain evidence and exhibits already made public in previous criminal hearings.

"Petitioners are unable to wait for resolution of the criminal proceeding to obtain this information," the filing said.

The state's highest court denied the petition without comment.

Cinemark said in a motion seeking to have the lawsuits dismissed that its employees could not have anticipated having to deal with "a madman's mass murder."

"It would be patently unfair, and legally unsound, to impose on Cinemark, a private business in the entertainment industry, the duty and burden to have foreseen and prevented the criminal equivalent of a meteor falling from the sky," the motion said.

After invoking the insanity defense, Holmes underwent a court-ordered sanity examination that looked at his sanity at the time of the shootings, his competence to stand trial, and whether his mental state would bar him from being executed.

The results of the evaluation have not been made public, although Samour disclosed in December that Holmes had been found competent to stand trial.

Prosecutors have challenged one of the three conclusions reached by evaluators, saying one of the evaluators was biased in his findings. Samour has ordered a hearing for this month on whether Holmes should undergo a second sanity examination, but ordered that hearing closed to the public, media and victims, and transcripts of the proceedings sealed.

(Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Gunna Dickson)

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