The former graduate student accused of opening fire at a midnight screening of the new Batman film in Colorado, killing 12 people, was charged Monday with 24 counts of first-degree murder, making him eligible for the death penalty if convicted.
James Holmes, who was arrested behind a suburban Denver multiplex minutes after the July 20 shooting at a packed showing of The Dark Knight Rises, also faces 116 counts of attempted murder in one of the worst outbursts of U.S. gun violence in recent years. Fifty-eight people were wounded in the attack, some of whom remain in critical condition.
Prosecutors have said a decision could be months away on whether to seek the death penalty against Holmes, 24, who made his second court appearance Monday. Colorado has not executed a condemned inmate since 1997.
Arapahoe County District Attorney Carol Chambers' office charged Holmes with two counts for each victim - one for carrying out the crime "after deliberation" and the second for "malice manifesting extreme indifference to human life."
Holmes, who authorities say styled himself after Batman's comic-book nemesis "The Joker," appeared in court clad in jail garb, his hair still dyed bright orange but with the colour fading to pink in places.
He sat impassively at a table with two defence lawyers through the 45-minute hearing but seemed more alert than during his initial court appearance a week ago, when he looked dazed and groggy.
The former neuroscience student spoke only once, quietly answering, "Yes," in response to a question from Judge William Sylvester. He mostly kept his gaze lowered and did not look at a courtroom gallery packed with media and victims' family members.
The judge set a pre-trial hearing for Sept. 27, tentatively scheduling a preliminary hearing for the week of Nov. 13.
Police say Holmes entered Theater 9 at the Century 16 multiplex in the Denver suburb of Aurora wearing tactical body armour and a gas mask and tossed smoke bombs before spraying moviegoers with bullets from three guns.
Authorities who rushed to his apartment following the movie house massacre said they found it wired with enough explosives to bring down the three-storey building, and spent several days dismantling the booby traps. Holmes, a San Diego native, was also charged Monday with possessing an explosive device.
Pregnant survivor Ashley Moser suffered a miscarriage following the shooting, but the loss of her fetus did not alter the number of murder charges because the unborn cannot be counted as homicide victims under Colorado law.
Moser, 25, was left paralyzed from the waist down from her own bullet wounds. Her daughter, six-year-old Veronica Moser-Sullivan, was the youngest of those who died in the shooting.
Moser's aunt, MaryEllen Hansen, said after Monday's hearing that she found Holmes a "diabolical, evil presence."
"But he looked very sane to me -very lucid as to what was going on."
Legal experts said the double charges could to be a strategy to offer jurors more than one path to a guilty verdict.