Prosecutors will seek the death penalty against the man accused of killing 12 people in a crowded US cinema last year, they said Monday, as the judge delayed the trial until next year.
The case against alleged shooter James Holmes will probably take years to reach a resolution, Judge William Sylvester said, as some in the Colorado court showed frustration at the likely length of the legal proceedings.
Twenty-five year-old Holmes last week offered to plead guilty in return for escaping the death penalty and accepting a life jail term, in what his lawyers said could have ended the case immediately.
But District Attorney George Brauchler announced he was seeking a death sentence after asking victims' relatives what they wanted. His office had heard from 800 survivors, victims and relatives, he said.
"In all the information that is available to me, it is my intention that for James Eagan Holmes in this case, justice is death," he told the court in Centennial.
The trial had been tentatively set for August. But Sylvester postponed it until February 3, 2014 -- and removed himself from the case, citing his workload as chief justice in Colorado's 18th judicial district.
"The final resolution of this case is now likely years away," he said, citing the "enormous consumption of resources a death penalty case of this magnitude entails," and naming judge Carlos Samour to take over the case.
Holmes is accused over the July 20 massacre at a midnight screening of the Batman movie "The Dark Knight Rises" in Aurora, outside Denver -- a crime that revived America's long-running debate about gun control.
Witnesses said Holmes threw smoke bomb-type devices before opening fire randomly with weapons, including an AR-15 military-style rifle, a 12-gauge shotgun and a .40-caliber pistol.
Last week defense lawyers filed an unexpected motion offering that Holmes would plead guilty in return for the prosecution not pressing for the death penalty, but agreeing to a sentence of life in prison without parole.
Prosecutors shot back within 24 hours, accusing the defense of trying to negotiate a plea deal in public, in violation of a gag order on the horrific case.
Colorado currently has three convicted prisoners on death row, but has not executed anyone since 1979.
After Brauchler announced he will seek the death penalty, some people in an overspill room used for victims' relatives showed clear disappointment at the length of time the case will now likely take.
Holmes himself showed no emotion. His parents Robert and Arlene were in court, and at one point she had her face in her hands, while her husband rubbed her back.
The judge entered a plea of not guilty on behalf of Holmes last month. At that time, his lawyers said they were not yet ready to enter a plea.
When Holmes first appeared in court last year, he had bright orange hair and looked befuddled. He has since let his hair color grow out, and sported curly brown hair and a beard last month.
During three days of pre-trial hearings in January, prosecutors called witnesses who gave chilling accounts of the slaughter, and played 911 emergency calls in which the chaos and loud booms of gunshots could be clearly heard.
They presented evidence that Holmes had planned the attack well in advance.
Court pleadings last month indicated that Holmes was hospitalized in mid-November under a psychiatric watch by Arapahoe County Sheriff's deputies who were concerned he could hurt himself.
At least part of his several-day hospital stay was spent in restraints, defense attorneys told the court.