James Holmes came home on winter break from graduate school looking haggard and making odd facial expressions, but his father didn’t suspect at the time that he was descending into mental illness.
Months later, Robert Holmes recalled that look when his son flashed a wide-eyed smirk in a jail booking photo after opening fire on the audience in a darkened Colorado movie theater, killing 12 people and injuring 70 others.
District Attorney George Brauchler pointed out while cross-examining Robert Holmes on Wednesday that the bug-eyed, smirky mug shot wasn’t taken immediately after his arrest, because his hair was no longer comic-book red. Brauchler suggested that Holmes could have been posing to make himself appear crazy.
Robert Holmes deflected Brauchler’s suggestions, saying he didn’t know anything about how the photograph was taken.
Robert Holmes testified that he and his wife were becoming increasingly concerned in the months before the July 2012 attack. They rarely spoke by phone, but he had stopped returning their calls entirely before his psychiatrist called them in June, saying he was dropping out of his prestigious neuroscience program.
“We didn’t know he was seeing a psychiatrist,” Robert Holmes said. He and his wife thought then their son was depressed or suffering Asperger’s syndrome, but he said the doctor would not return their calls seeking more information.
So they planned to fly from California for a visit, but it would be too late. The flight Robert Holmes booked instead was to see his son at his first court appearance, looking sullen and confused.
Defense attorneys will also call his mother, Arlene Holmes, to the stand as they prepare to rest their portion of the sentencing phase, which has included several dozen family friends, teachers and former neighbors who said the Holmes they knew was shy, mild-mannered and polite– not the kind of young man who would gun down innocent strangers.
Death sentences must be unanimous, and the judge has explained to jurors that their decision will be highly personal. While jurors have already found Holmes was legally sane at the time of the attack, his defense is hoping at least one juror will agree that his mental illness and family ties reduce his moral culpability so much that he deserves the mercy of a life sentence instead.
Jurors have been shown pictures and home-movies from Holmes’ unremarkable childhood: playing soccer, graduating high school, smiling at the dinner table, jumping in the surf near their quiet California neighborhood.
The father said he was an isolated teen, but that didn’t concern him very much because he was the same way growing up. The younger Holmes never brought a girlfriend home, and his father rarely, if ever saw him with friends.
His parents were thrilled to learn he had started dating in graduate school, and knew it wasn’t a good sign when that first relationship ended, he said.
“We knew some things weren’t going well there,” Robert Holmes said.
Brauchler sought to focus on what they didn’t know or didn’t tell jurors: that James Holmes’ mother took him to a counselor when he was just 8 because he was throwing things and acting out, and that once he was in college, he lost touch with his younger sister, and never inquired about her well-being.
The father said that he has only seen his son in jail three times because he typically does not allow visitors. During a rare visit, James Holmes “was clearly really messed up,” his father said. “But he told us he loved us.”