Judge enters not guilty plea for Colorado theatre gunman James Holmes

CENTENNIAL, Colorado (REUTERS) - A Colorado judge presiding over the case of accused theatre gunman James Holmes entered a not guilty plea on his behalf on Tuesday to charges he went on a shooting spree in a Denver suburb nearly eight months ago and killed 12 moviegoers.

Arapahoe County District Judge William Sylvester made the move after declining a defence request for a continuance, paving the way for a trial to potentially begin in August. Holmes' lawyers said the defence was not ready to enter a plea.

Holmes faces multiple counts of first-degree murder and attempted murder stemming from the July 20 rampage that also wounded 58 people and was one of the deadliest mass shootings in US history.

Holmes, who has grown shaggy hair and a beard since his arrest, glanced briefly at his parents as he entered a courtroom on Tuesday that was also packed with survivors or people who lost family in the shooting. His lawyers are expected to mount an insanity defence for the former University of Colorado neuroscience graduate student who surrendered to officers outside the theatre in the Denver suburb of Aurora within minutes of the mass killing.

"This matter has been pending since July 2012," Judge Sylvester said. "I acquiesced to the defence and put off the date as long as we could."

Prosecutors have depicted Holmes, 25, as a young man whose once-promising academic career was in tatters. He failed graduate school oral board exams in June, and one of his professors suggested he may not have been a good fit for his competitive doctoral programme, prosecutors said.

Arapahoe County District Attorney George Brauchler said in court that his office would announce at some point during court hearings in the first week of April whether it would seek the death penalty for Holmes.

Judge Sylvester said that, even though he was entering a simple not guilty plea on Holmes' behalf, the defence could later substitute a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity. He also scheduled a four-week trial for Holmes to begin on Aug 5.

Mr Marcus Weaver, who was wounded in the theatre shooting, attended the court hearing and said afterward he was worried about a drawn-out legal proceeding if Holmes' defence team mounts an insanity defence.

"If he carries this out all the way, we should seek the death penalty," Mr Weaver said outside the courtroom.

When Holmes' defence team asked to postpone the arraignment, some of those in attendance gave audible sighs in reaction.

The automatic plea by Judge Sylvester came a day after he ruled that Holmes could be medicated for psychiatric interviews and possibly face a polygraph test if he chooses to raise an insanity defence. Holmes' lawyers have argued he should not be drugged while undergoing examinations by court-appointed psychiatrists.