Victims conflicted over death penalty for theater gunman


CENTENNIAL, Colo. (AP) — Marcus Weaver spent nearly three years talking openly about forgiving the man who shot him, killed his friend and caused untold suffering. As a Christian opposed to capital punishment, he considered forgiveness “a no-brainer” and didn’t want to see the gunman executed.

But by the time James Holmes was convicted in the chilling 2012 attack on a Colorado movie theater that left 12 people dead and 70 injured, Weaver had changed his mind about the punishment.

“I feel the sentence that he may get, which is the death penalty, is the only penalty that fits the crime that he committed that night,” Weaver said, standing in front of the courthouse where he listened to the tragic and gruesome testimony of fellow moviegoers that ultimately spurred his change of heart.

“What do you do to someone who does something as heinous and cowardly as the shooter did and walk into a theater and shoot at an unarmed crowd? It kind of, like, conflicts you.”

Jurors began deliberating Thursday afternoon whether Holmes, 27, should spend the rest of his life in prison or die by lethal injection. After about two hours, they went home for the day without reaching a decision. Deliberations will resume Friday.

In closing arguments, District Attorney George Brauchler played a recording of a 911 call with gunshots and screams in the background as the victims’ pictures disappeared one by one from a courtroom TV screen.

“For James Eagan Holmes, justice is death,” he said. “Death.”

Defense attorney Tamara Brady said that the massacre was heartbreaking but that Holmes’ schizophrenia was the sole cause.

“The death of a seriously mentally ill man is not justice, no matter how tragic the case is,” she said. “Please, no more death.”

As Brady began, about 10 victims and family members left the courtroom without speaking, including Caren Teves, mother of Alex Teves, who was killed. At least one juror turned her head and watched them.

Teves said later the mass exit wasn’t planned but people decided individually they didn’t want to hear Brady.

Weaver’s complicated evolution on the death penalty suggested that for some, there are no easy answers, not even for those who most want to see Holmes punished.

Holmes’ victims don’t agree on what sentence is appropriate for the former neuroscience graduate student. Nor is there a consensus about whether it will ease their pain and loss.

Robert Sullivan said death would be the only just punishment for the man who killed his 6-year-old granddaughter, Veronica.

But Lonnie Phillips, whose daughter, Jessica Ghawi, 24, died in the attack, worries about the decades of appeals that typically come with a death sentence.

“If I had my way, he would go to prison the rest of his life and not have to go through the appeals process where we have to look at his face and hear his name again,” Phillips said. “We want him behind us.”

In convicting Holmes last month of murder, the jury rejected claims that he was so mentally ill he couldn’t tell right from wrong.

For Weaver, who took a shotgun blast to the arm and whose friend Rebecca Wingo was killed, the issue of whether Holmes should die has always been complex.

Immediately after the shooting, Weaver, who works for an organization that helps ex-convicts find jobs, clung to his belief that people can change.

“I see it all the time in my work,” said Weaver, who speaks to schools, prisons and church groups across the country about overcoming obstacles.

He believed Holmes should get a life sentence without parole, especially if he were willing to plead guilty and spare everyone a long and agonizing trial. But prosecutors rejected a plea offer, and the case dragged on for more than three years, revealing gut-wrenching new details at every turn.

Weaver heard a stream of heartbreaking stories from other survivors and listened in horror as prosecutors described Holmes’ meticulous plans to kill as many as he could.

When Weaver took the stand and glanced over at Holmes, looking vacant behind the defense table, he saw no sign of remorse in his eyes. He said that when he realized many victims wanted Holmes executed, “I kind of had to let my stance go.”

“What I did was just prayed about it and left it up to the Lord, and I just moved ahead and let him carry the burden,” he said. “And then the burden was on the jury of 12.”

While he now backs a death sentence for Holmes, Weaver said he still forgives him.

“It’s really stretched my faith. People ask, ‘Why did you forgive him?’ I say, ‘Well, I didn’t want to carry his bag of rocks around for three years,’” Weaver said. “I had to let him go. It wreaks havoc on your life when you’re conflicted over something you have no control over anyway.”

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