AURORA, Colo. - Defense attorneys for Aurora movie theater shooting suspect James Holmes told a judge Tuesday they were not ready to enter a plea, but the judge refused to wait and entered what he called the "standard" not guilty plea.
Defense attorneys had asked for a continuance, saying they were "not ethically prepared" to enter a plea. They said they might be ready May 1 or June 1.
Prosecutors objected, and told the judge they wanted to "get this case moving forward."
-- For a complete timeline of the case, including how Holmes allegedly prepared for the shooting, click here: http://ch7ne.ws/16pwKWB --
Defense attorneys argued they've made a lot of progress, but they were just not ready right now. The defense said they have retained experts and "are doing the best (they) can."
However, Judge William Sylvester refused to delay the case. He entered the not guilty plea over the objections of defense attorneys.
The judge told defense attorneys they could change the plea to not guilty by reason of insanity at a later date.
"That is rather rare. I have seen it happen before but it is a rare beast when a judge enters a plea when the defense says they're not ready to enter a plea," said attorney Dan Recht, who's tracking the case.
Now that a plea has been entered, prosecutors have 60 days to decide whether they will seek the death penalty. Prosecutors said they would be ready to announce their decision at a hearing scheduled for April 1.
"What we're going to see coming forward is the prosecution seeking the death penalty. I predict they will do that on April 1. And sometime in the next month or two we're going to see with good certainty the defense to ask to enter a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity," Recht commented.
Marcus Weaver lost his friend Rebecca Wingo and was shot in the arm at the theater. He said the district attorney's office has been surveying families about whether Holmes should face the death penalty. Weaver said that based on conversations he's had with other victims "the death penalty does seem to be what everyone feels" should be pursued. He said he thinks the death penalty should be pursued if Holmes fights the accusations but not if he pleads guilty.
Judge Sylvester also scheduled a four week trial for the case starting Aug. 5 -- more than a year after the mass shooting -- but that date could change.
Holmes, a 25-year-old former University of Colorado graduate student in neuroscience, is charged with 166 counts in the July 20 massacre. The shooting, which occurred during a midnight showing of the "The Dark Knight Rises," left 12 moviegoers dead and injured 70 people.
Holmes' parents, James and Arlene Holmes, were in the second row of the courtroom for the hearing Tuesday. Reporters felt that Holmes raised his eyebrows, acknowledging their presence, but he did not speak to them. His parents did not react when the judge entered the plea and left the courtroom without comment.
Some of the victims and their families said they were grateful the judge is moving proceedings along.
"I'm trying to remain reserved, that way I don't get my hopes up or down," said Jessica Watts. Her cousin, Jonathan Blunk, was killed in the shooting.
"I was glad the judge was able to enter a plea so we could get the clock ticking," Watts said.
During hearings over the past few months, prosecutors have laid out a case that Holmes methodically planned the shooting for months, amassing an arsenal of weapons and elaborately booby-trapping his apartment to kill anyone who tried to enter.
On the night of the attack, prosecutors say, Holmes donned a police-style helmet, gas mask and body armor, tossed a gas canister into the theater seats and then opened fire.
Defense attorneys gave the impression that Holmes might plead not guilty by reason of insanity. Holmes' lawyers repeatedly raised questions about his mental health, including a recent revelation that he was held in a psychiatric ward for several days last fall, often in restraints, because he was considered a danger to himself
The attorneys asked the judge to explain the consequences if Holmes made an insanity plea. On Monday, the judge issued an order explaining what he would tell Holmes. However, that information was not needed in court on Tuesday.
A not guilty by reason of insanity plea carries risk. Prosecutors would gain access to Holmes' mental health records, which could help their case if the evidence of insanity is weak.
If Holmes does plead insanity, the proceedings would be prolonged further while he is evaluated by state mental health officials. With the judge entering the plea, prosecutors still don't have access to Holmes' health records.
If a jury agrees he was insane, Holmes would be committed indefinitely to a state mental hospital. There would be a remote and unlikely chance he could be freed one day if doctors find his sanity has been restored.