Civil Trial Over Colorado Theater Shooting Security Begins

Photo: The Aurora movie theater where 12 people were killed in a July 2012 mass shooting
The Aurora theater where 12 people were killed in a July 2012 mass shooting.

Nine months after the Colorado theater shooter was sentenced to life in prison, some victims are returning to the same courtroom in hopes of holding the company that owns the suburban Denver movie theater accountable for not doing more to prevent his bloody rampage.

In a civil trial starting Monday in state court, 28 victims' families say Century Theaters should have had armed guards at the packed opening of the Batman film "The Dark Knight Rises" and alarms that would have sounded when James Holmes slipped into the darkened auditorium through an emergency exit and opened fire, killing 12. Jurors will be asked determine if, in an age of mass shootings, the theater should have foreseen the possibility of an attack.

The families will argue Cinemark knew the midnight blockbuster would attract at least 1,000 people and should have had guards patrolling the parking lot, where they might have seen Holmes suiting up in head-to-toe body armor in his car. The lawsuit says theater employees failed to check doors, lacked closed-circuit television cameras that would have allowed them to spot trouble and did not intervene as victims lay wounded and dying in the aisles.

Theaters across the country had extra security for the July 20, 2012, premiere, and the Century 16 theater in Aurora typically had guards Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights, said New York attorney Marc Bern, who is representing 27 of the families. The premiere fell on a Thursday.

"We believe if these precautions had been in place, the shooting would have been deterred and prevented," he said.

Century's attorney, Kevin Taylor, declined to comment Friday. But the company has said in court documents that it could not have foreseen the attack.

The trial is the first to come from several civil lawsuits stemming from the attack, in which Holmes was also convicted of hurting 70 people. At least 40 other victims have signed onto a similar suit against Cinemark that's slated for trial in federal court in July. Another lawsuit accusing University of Colorado officials and Holmes' psychiatrist of not doing enough to prevent the attack is on hold pending the other suits.

Prosecutors sought the death penalty against Holmes, who pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. After an emotionally grueling four-month trial, Holmes was convicted of 165 counts and sentenced in August to life in prison without parole because jurors failed to unanimously agree that he should die for his crimes.

In the civil case, plaintiff's attorneys twice scheduled depositions of Holmes, hoping to interview him about his plans for the shooting and why he targeted the theater. But the depositions were canceled because Holmes was transferred to different prisons, first to another location within Colorado and then to an out-of-state prison that officials have repeatedly refused to reveal.

Without Holmes' testimony, attorneys will rely on the spiral notebook in which he detailed elaborate plans for the killings, including lists of weapons to buy and diagrams showing which auditoriums in the theater complex would allow for the most casualties. Holmes marked exit doors, evaluated his own visibility and even located the best parking spots and determined how quickly police would arrive.

"He scoped out the theater and took photos on at least three occasions," Bern said. "He picked this location because of lack of security."

Holmes entered the theater and sat in the front by himself. About 15 minutes into the film, he left through an emergency exit that he had propped open using tablecloth clips. Holmes soon re-entered, stood before the crowd of more than 400, threw gas canisters and opened fire with a shotgun, assault rifle and semi-automatic pistol.

The extent of the victims' wounds could be front-and-center as jurors try to determine whether the theater is liable, said Denver attorney Scott Robinson, who has handled personal injury cases but is not involved in the case against Century. That the lawsuit made it to trial means the case has already overcome some major hurdles, he said.

"There's certainly some arguable negligence on the part of the theater chain," Robinson said. "The real issue is, was this foreseeable?"