The judge in the deadly Colorado movie theater shooting case entered a not guilty plea on behalf of James Holmes on Tuesday after the former graduate student's defense team said he was not ready to enter one.
Judge William Sylvester said Holmes can change his plea to not guilty by reason of insanity later, if he chooses. If he is convicted, Holmes could be executed or spend the rest of his life in prison.
Holmes is charged with multiple counts of murder and attempted murder in the July 20 attack at a suburban Denver movie theater that killed 12 people and injured 70.
In the nearly eight months since Holmes first shuffled into court with vacant eyes and reddish-orange hair, neither he nor his lawyers have said much about how he would plead.
Holmes' lawyers repeatedly raised questions about his mental health, including a recent revelation that he was held in a psychiatric ward for several days last fall, often in restraints, because he was considered a danger to himself.
That raised the possibility that they could end up entering a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity at the hearing Tuesday. Legal experts said such a plea could be the only way Holmes could avoid life in prison or execution.
Holmes lawyers, however, said they were not ready to enter a plea.
With the judge entering the not guilty plea, prosecutors would not have access to Holmes' mental health records. Holmes could be convicted outright, with a possible life term or death.
Prosecutors laid out a case that Holmes methodically planned the shooting for months, amassing an arsenal and elaborately booby-trapping his apartment to kill anyone who tried to enter. On the night of the attack, they say, he donned a police-style helmet, gas mask and body armor, tossed a gas canister into the seats and then opened fire.
Holmes is charged with 166 counts, mostly murder and attempted murder, in the assault on moviegoers at a midnight showing of "The Dark Knight Rises" in Aurora.
If a jury agrees he was insane, he would be committed indefinitely to a state mental hospital. There would be a remote and unlikely chance he could be freed one day if doctors find his sanity has been restored.
The plea carries risk, however. Prosecutors would gain access to Holmes' mental health records, which could help their case if the evidence of insanity is weak. If Holmes does plead insanity, the proceedings would be prolonged further while he is evaluated by state mental health officials.
No matter how Holmes pleads, he could still be convicted and sentenced to execution or life in prison without parole. Prosecutors have 60 days after the plea to say whether they will seek the death penalty.