CENTENNIAL, Colo. -- A bearded and bushy-haired James Holmes sat quietly as a packed courtroom waited yesterday for a plea that could help shed light on a deadly shooting rampage he is accused of going on last summer in a crowded movie theater.
Instead, his lawyers told the judge they weren't ready to enter a plea -- despite numerous delays since the July 20 attack that killed 12 people and injured 70 at a midnight showing of "The Dark Knight Rises."
A barely audible gasp rose from dozens of family members and victims.
"So how am I supposed to make an informed decision?" Judge William Sylvester asked pointedly, his gaze fixed on defense lawyer Daniel King, before the judge entered a not guilty plea on Holmes' behalf.
Victims were relieved by Sylvester's action.
"It's been since July," said Marcus Weaver, who was shot in the arm and who lost friend Rebecca Wingo in the attack. "We're just so thankful we're able to move forward."
Legal experts said the defense's statement may be part of a larger strategy to avoid the death penalty. Holmes can still change his plea to not guilty by reason of insanity, and he can wait to do so until after prosecutors announce whether they will seek the death penalty.
"This just allows the defense to think through how they want to proceed," said Dan Recht, a Denver defense attorney following the case. "The odds are the prosecution is going to pursue the death penalty and literally Holmes' life is at stake, so they want to be able to think through all the pleas they can offer."
That makes it easier for the defense to plan its best case. Holmes could plead insanity and would wind up in a mental hospital indefinitely -- and would never face execution -- if the jury finds in his favor.
Holmes could also simply plead innocent, and he wouldn't have to give prosecutors potentially incriminating medical records and statements made to doctors.
Attorneys on both sides, under the judge's orders not to speak about the case, left the hearing without commenting.