CENTENNIAL, Colo.—They show up in court every day, a visible reminder to jurors that even a killer has parents who love him and who don’t want him to die.
But more than two months into his mass-murder trial, James Holmes has yet to turn around in his seat and acknowledge them.
They called him Jimbo. He called them Goober and Bobbo. But the relationship Arlene and Robert Holmes had with their son had been strained since he was a young boy. After he left for graduate school, their communication was mostly confined to terse emails.
Holmes’ remoteness from his parents cuts to the heart of his insanity defense.
Prosecutors say he held them at bay in a calculated effort to conceal his murderous plans, even from those who raised and loved him. Defense attorneys say their fraying family ties reveal a man so delusional that he couldn’t bear revealing his struggle, even to those who could have helped.
Just before the trial, Holmes’ parents begged for a plea deal that would spare his life.
“He is a human being gripped by a severe mental illness,” they said in a statement in December, as thousands of jury summonses were mailed. “We have always loved him, and we do not want him to be executed.”
Now, the San Diego couple sits two rows behind him, scribbling into tiny notepads. They have heard scores of victims describe the slaughter their son inflicted in July 2012 and watched psychiatrists pick apart his addled mind.
It’s hard to tell how all this affects them. They have made very few public statements in the nearly three years since the attack. They don’t cry or hang their heads. Arlene occasionally reaches for her husband’s hand during particularly heart-wrenching moments, and he wraps his arm around her shoulder, pulling her close.
They have declined to comment during the trial, and court orders prevent reporters from approaching them. They may be called to testify as the defense continues presenting its case, or more likely, at sentencing if he is convicted.
“We are mourners — just like everyone else in the courtroom and nothing like anyone else in the courtroom because we are the parents,” Arlene wrote in a book of prayers and reflections published earlier this year that sheds some light on her experience. “We are like no one else in the world.”
Holmes’ attorneys have referenced a family history of disorders, including an aunt with schizophrenia and a grandfather who was institutionalized. Holmes’ parents and younger sister joined him in family therapy when he was in eighth grade. Arlene Holmes was hoping the family could become closer, and she may have been struggling with depression herself, Holmes said.
Family therapy didn’t help in any case, because he never opened up for fear of seeming weak, Holmes told a psychiatrist conducting a sanity evaluation two years after the attack.
Holmes told that doctor that he was closer to his mother but more like his dad: “fastidious and detail oriented.”
The distance between them grew when he returned home from undergraduate school without a job. When it came time to leave for his competitive neuroscience program at the University of Colorado, Denver, he turned down his father’s offer to drive with him.
After that, his emails home were brief: “Goober, all is well here,” one said.
At Thanksgiving, he emailed again to say he would be spending the holiday in Colorado “with a bunch of my peeps and my gal.”
Their tone hardly changed, even as his life unraveled. In February 2012, he wrote to say he planned to cook his girlfriend a candlelight dinner. After she broke up with him days later, he wrote: “It hasn’t exactly been the best of times.”
They showed concern but didn’t rush to Colorado, even after Holmes abruptly dropped out of school and his mother got a call from his therapist.
Dr. Lynne Fenton asked if it was unusual for their son to seem so emotionless and withdrawn. Arlene Holmes responded that her son had always been socially awkward.
“She was always worried about him and wanted to help him, but she wasn’t sure how to do that,” Fenton testified.
They offered to let him move home. He said he preferred to stay and live off unemployment.
“Please let me know how you are doing and if we can help in any way,” Robert emailed him later. “This has been a trying time for you, and I want you to know we are with you.”
By then, Holmes had already assembled an arsenal of weapons. He had already researched movie showings, and picked the auditorium where he could kill the most people. He had already decided to launch his attack at the midnight Batman premiere on July 20, 2012.
Eight days before the shooting, Robert asked if they could come visit in August.
“I don’t have any plans for that weekend,” he wrote back.
Holmes knew he had his parents’ support. In his halting responses to the court-ordered examiner, he described them as “warm and loving — talk to each other — hugs — I was the only shy one in the family.”
But when a police officer asked Holmes for an emergency contact after his arrest, he at first listed Fenton, not his parents.
Two years later, Holmes said he didn’t care if got the death penalty but would probably fight it for his parents’ sake.
“They would miss me,” he said.
Holmes said his parents regularly send him letters in jail. Arlene mentioned them in her book.
“I tell Jim I love him and pray he feels loved,” Arlene wrote. “I hope his brain is not too disordered to remember what love feels like. A mother’s letters to her son should be personal, but I forfeit that right because the unthinkable happened.”
Holmes’ mother also wrote of praying for the victims each night and waking up worrying their son has died behind bars. She mentioned her own feelings of guilt, too.
“I can never forgive myself for not knowing that this would happen,” she wrote.
From where they sit, Holmes’ parents are separated from their son’s victims by reporters, sheriff’s deputies and an aisle. While therapy dogs and victim advocates offer comfort to the survivors, they sit alone, a box of tissues at their feet.