This column first appeared in The Arizona Daily Star on Sept. 8, 2015.
In some ways, mass murderers are no different than you and me: At some point, everyone had a mother and a father. And, as difficult as it is to imagine, if somehow our lives took an awful turn and we did something truly heinous, we’d like to hope our parents would be in our corner doing anything and everything they could for us.
Last month in Centennial, Colorado, a jury faced one of the most onerous tasks society asks of its citizens. The townspeople in Colorado had to decide whether it was life or death for James Holmes, deciding upon a sentence of life without a chance of parole release or the death penalty. That same jury of 12 found Holmes guilty of 24 counts of first-degree murder and 140 counts of attempted murder for the July 2012 killing of 12 innocent people and injuries to 70 more. Holmes opened fire at the Aurora, Colorado, movie theater showing of The Dark Knight Rises.
Following the guilty verdict, the jury heard evidence during the sentencing phase of the trial. Among the many witnesses called to the stand were both of Holmes’ parents, Robert and Arlene Holmes. With that one glaring exception of having a son who went on a monstrous, blood-curdling rampage, Robert and Arlene aren’t too different from the rest of the population of American parents. The father, Robert, is a senior scientist at FICO, the company that calculates consumer credit scores. He is a mathematician with degrees from some of the finest institutions in the U.S.—Stanford, Berkeley and U.C.L.A. The mother, Arlene, is a registered nurse. The couple have a home in suburban San Diego, California, where they attend a local Lutheran church.
Robert Holmes came to court nearly every day to attend his son’s trial. He sat in a courtroom where he was probably not particularly welcomed with open arms. He sat among the dozens of grieving survivors of the innocent people his son murdered, other parents, children, brothers and sisters. He sat among the scarred and the severely wounded. Yet, he came. When called, he took the stand to try to save his son’s life. He told of his son’s near idyllic early childhood in Castroville, California. James did exceptionally well in school, played soccer and was always surrounded by a pack of friends. The elder Holmes told of a history of mental illness in his own family, but never suspected his son had an illness. Although it does not appear that James Holmes wants a relationship with his father at this time, Robert Holmes was asked if he still loved James, as if to suggest that the enormity of the bloodshed caused by the son had changed the way a father felt about his child. “Yes, I do,” he said. “Why?” asked James’ lawyer. “Because he’s my son,” he answered.
One of the parents sitting in the courtroom with Robert and Arlene Holmes was Ashley Moser. The prosecutors saved her heart-wrenching testimony for last, and strategically, it’ s easy to understand why they did. Moser, eight weeks pregnant at the time, was watching the movie with her 6-year-old daughter, Veronica, when James Holmes’ massacre took place. Moser reached for her daughter’s hand, but she felt it slip away. Of the 76 shots fired by Holmes from three guns, Moser was struck three times, and fell on top of her daughter. Veronica was struck by four bullets and was killed, and Moser suffered a miscarriage. Left paralyzed for life, a bullet still lodged in her back, she moved about the courtroom in a wheelchair, testifying in the courtroom as James Holmes and his family watched and listened.
Holmes’ mother testified on her son’s behalf. Looking back on things, Arlene Holmes said she could now see how her son changed when he became an adolescent, after they moved from Northern California to San Diego. Once a fast and athletic soccer player, he became uncoordinated and spent most of his free time playing cards and video games. She took him for counseling when he became depressed, but she never suspected he was mentally ill. He isolated himself but didn’t get into trouble and got good grades, she said. “I thought I had a good kid,” she testified.
I remember a client I once represented whose mother also thought she had a good kid, stuck with her son after he committed a vicious stranger-abduction rape. After he was convicted and sentenced to consecutive sentences totaling 35 years, she said something only a naïve but loving mother could say: “Thirty-five years? That’s a murder sentence, and he didn’t kill her.” Parents defend children, even when they commit atrocities.
By the time James Holmes was 24 and committed a murderous rampage, his parents had no idea he was suffering from schizophrenia or was homicidal. Yet several witnesses on both the prosecution and defense sides agreed that at the time of the murders their son suffered from schizophrenia and was mentally ill. Prior to the trial, nobody ever disclosed Holmes’ condition to the parents. Obviously, Holmes spiraled downward and spiraled fast.
With a different verdict, Holmes would be facing execution now. Holmes gets to live the rest of his days in a Colorado prison. His father says he will visit him. “Jimmy was always really an excellent kid,” the father testified. We’d all like to think our parents would continue to stand by us like that, even in the face of temptation to join the justifiably angry public, the victims who so often and understandably cannot do anything but express anger and frequent hatred at their children.
Holmes’ father still calls his son Jimmy. Just like my dad always did.