Aurora victims, families face months of motions

James Eagan Holmes, the young man accused of killing 12 movie-goers and wounding 58 others in Aurora earlier this month, was formally charged on Monday morning. The counts included two different charges of first-degree murder for each deceased victim and similar double charges of attempted murder for each injured survivor, plus one count of possession of explosives and one sentence enhancer related to the extreme violence of the crime.

Attorneys are already arguing motions, including, yesterday, whether a notebook Holmes reportedly sent to his psychiatrist was privileged doctor-patient communication. Colorado media outlets also have asked the court to unseal the case file. Before this case is settled, there likely will be a long string of motions that seem only tenuously related to the central question of Holmes’ future.

There will be a much longer string of comments — in print, online and aloud — questioning why justice happens so slowly and costs so much taxpayer money. (The recent trial of baseball pitcher Roger Clemens, acquitted of lying to Congress about his steroid use, allegedly cost $3 million.)

After all, Holmes was arrested near his car, right outside the theater exit. His orange hair made him easy for witnesses to identify. He reportedly told investigators his apartment was booby-trapped. A trail of weapons purchases should not be difficult to link to the crime.

The minimum sentence he faces, if convicted, is life without parole, and unless the death penalty is invoked (a move that would cost taxpayers far more money and not necessarily result in Holmes’ execution), arguing for 12 or 24 times that would change nothing.

For now, though, the court must delve into Holmes’ mental state, an exercise in frustration for many who would argue that no sane person could open fire in a crowded theater and for many others who will point out the complexity of preparations. Is this the best we can do to ensure a defendant’s right to a fair trial, they will ask, and that’s a fair question.

The results, eventually, may provide satisfaction. All the exercises between now and then accomplish two things: They ensure that the right person is convicted, and by virtue of procedures that seem nonsensical to an outsider, they ensure that the conviction holds. Rushing to trial, or rushing through a trial, leaves opportunities for appeal. The potential for overturning a conviction for technical reasons, alone, should reinforce observers’ patience.

No one has suggested that someone else might be responsible for what happened in that theatre, but even in this case, the first point is not inconsequential. This is the United States of America, where defendants are not railroaded. The system isn’t perfect, nor is it fast, but the safeguards it contains are time-tested and invaluable. Holmes’ will have ample opportunity to present all available defenses. By the time the trial is over, observers will be older, perhaps wiser about the criminal justice system, and perhaps more cynical about the high price of fairness for defendants whose cases are nothing like Holmes’. That price falls partly to victims and families, and that part is unfortunate.