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Jury Selection To Begin In 2012 Aurora Theater Mass Shooting

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Jury selection is set to begin today in the Aurora, Colorado, theater shooting trial. The death penalty case has taken two and a half years to come to this moment. James Holmes's legal team admits he was the shooter. The real question here is whether he was legally insane. Colorado Public Radio's Ben Marcus reports.

BEN MARCUS, BYLINE: On an icy morning in the Denver suburb of Centennial, Tom Sullivan sits at his dining room table, a look of sadness in his eyes as he nurses a cup of coffee. His son, Alex, was among 12 people killed in 2012 when a gunman stormed the midnight screening of "The Dark Knight Rises." For others, the beginning of the trial may help bring closure.

TOM SULLIVAN: I'm not quite sure what that word means. I don't know that there's any closure for us because it is an open wound that, you know, I live with every day.

MARCUS: Sullivan says he knew early on that the trial would be a long process. The gunman is facing the death penalty, and he's pled not guilty by reason of insanity - two issues that make this one of the most complex criminal trials in Colorado history.

CRAIG SILVERMAN: I have never seen a trial like this anywhere, let alone in Colorado.

MARCUS: Craig Silverman was a prosecuting attorney for 16 years in the Denver DA's office. He's tried and won a death penalty case, and he's not surprised that the defendant's attorneys delayed the trial for more than two years.

SILVERMAN: Right. Delay is always the natural ally of a death penalty defendant. The longer the case takes to come to trial, the longer the client will necessarily live.

MARCUS: Defense attorneys argued they needed more time to sift through the enormous amount of physical evidence and psychological testimony, but the judge, having grown impatient, has denied further attempts at delay. So jury selection is starting today. Nine thousand summons have gone out, more than three times the number for the Boston Marathon bombing trial, making this one of the largest jury pools ever. Karen Steinhauser is a defense attorney, law professor and former prosecutor.

KAREN STEINHAUSER: It's going to take months to find, not only the right jury, but jurors who are able to sit in a trial that we're talking may be six, seven months.

MARCUS: The pool of jurors is so large partly because finding someone who wasn't in some way affected will be a challenge. And, Steinhauser says, in Colorado jurors on death penalty cases must be death qualified, meaning they can't be opposed to capital punishment. Then there's the critical question of sanity. Former prosecutor Craig Silverman says this isn't a whodunit kind of trial.

SILVERMAN: It really looks like this is going to come down to a battle of the experts.

MARCUS: Psychological experts, who likely have competing views of Holmes' sanity at the time of the attack. When the actual trial begins, you can likely watch that play out yourself. It'll be televised. And Dave Hoover, whose nephew AJ Boik was killed in the theater, is expecting the trial to bring more intense media coverage.

DAVE HOOVER: It's something that continues to bring the issue up and put it in the forefront and right in your face so that you can't get away from it.

MARCUS: Hoover says he'll attend opening statements and closing arguments, but he can't bring himself to attend the rest of the trial.

HOOVER: I don't know if my heart could take it, you know. It's not healthy, you know, at least for me.

MARCUS: If jury selection runs smoothly, opening statements in the trial could begin as early as May. For NPR News, I'm Ben Marcus in Denver. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.