CENTENNIAL, Colo. -- The suspect in the Aurora movie theater killings returns to court this week for a hearing that might be the closest thing to a trial the victims and their families will get to see.

James Holmes, a former neuroscience graduate student, is charged with killing 12 people and injuring 58 by opening fire in a darkened theater in the Denver suburb in July.

At a weeklong preliminary hearing starting today, prosecutors will outline their case against Holmes, the first official public disclosure of their evidence. The judge will then determine whether to send the case to trial.

Legal analysts say evidence appears so strong that Holmes may well accept a plea agreement before trial. In such cases, the preliminary hearing can set the stage for a deal by letting each side assess the other's strengths and weaknesses, said Laurie Levenson, a former federal prosecutor and now a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.

Preliminary hearings "are often the first step to resolving the case, a mini-trial so both sides can see the writing on the wall," Levenson said.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

Judges rarely throw out a case at this stage because prosecutors must only meet a "probable cause" standard -- much lower than the "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard for a guilty verdict at trial, said Mimi Wesson, a professor at University of Colorado Law School.

Holmes, who faces more than 160 counts, including first-degree murder and attempted murder, could have waived his right to a preliminary hearing, allowing lawyers on both sides to prepare for trial. But defense lawyers sometimes go through with the hearing to give them a clearer picture of prosecution evidence.

Court officials expect many survivors and family members of the dead to attend the hearing, along with spectators and reporters. Two overflow rooms are being prepared with video and audio feeds.

District Judge William B. Sylvester has imposed a gag order, and many court documents have been filed under seal, so little is known about Holmes' path from promising graduate student to suspect in a mass murder.