CENTENNIAL, Colo. (AP) — The new judge who was thrust into the death penalty case against Colorado theater shooting suspect James Holmes was relaxed and quick-witted during his first hours on the job — qualities that could be severely tested as the high-stakes drama grinds on.
District Judge Carlos A. Samour Jr. took over in the middle of a hearing Monday, walking into the courtroom 30 minutes after his predecessor, William Sylvester, called a recess and left.
Sylvester took himself off the case, saying prosecutors' decision to seek the death penalty meant that the months of hearings and the trial wouldn't leave enough time for his administrative duties as chief judge of a busy four-county district. He appointed Samour to take over.
The case was already fraught with tension and emotion before prosecutors announced Monday they want to see Holmes executed for the massacre last July, which killed 12 people and injured 70.
At one hearing, the father of a woman killed in the theater shouted, "Rot in hell, Holmes!" Prosecution and defense attorneys are civil in court but have waged a war of words in quarrelsome court filings. Holmes' lawyers are pressing a reporter to reveal her confidential sources for a story about the defendant.
Soon, Samour might be required to decide whether Holmes can change his plea from not guilty to not guilty by reason of insanity. Samour also might have to decide whether to accept a plea bargain that would spare Holmes from execution and send him to prison for life without parole, if such a deal emerges.
"He is up to the task," said former Gov. Bill Ritter, who hired Samour as a prosecutor in 1996 when Ritter was Denver district attorney.
Samour can handle "not just the legal complexities but the assortment of moving parts in a case like this," Ritter said.
"Carlos is a serious intellect," Ritter said. "He takes time to understand intricacies and nuances."
One of Samour's first decisions was to release some sealed court documents that news organizations had been seeking for months. The documents were affidavits submitted by investigators to obtain search warrants, and most of the information they contained already had been disclosed.
Samour has never before presided over a death penalty case. Until Monday, he was best known for ordering a reluctant prosecutor to file sexual assault charges against two men in 2009.
Carol Chambers, then the Arapahoe County district attorney, thought the evidence was too weak. But Samour ruled that Chambers' decision was "unjustifiable, arbitrary, capricious, and without reasonable excuse."
The Colorado Court of Appeals overturned Samour's order, saying prosecutors have discretion to decide what cases to pursue. The state Supreme Court declined to review the matter.
Samour was born in El Salvador and moved to the United States with his family in 1979 at age 13, according to his official biography.
He graduated from Columbine High School in 1983, 16 years before the mass shootings there left 12 students and a teacher dead. In 1987, he graduated from the University of Colorado, Denver — the same school Holmes attended as a graduate student in neuroscience.
Samour received his law degree from the University of Denver in 1990.
"He was engaged and thoughtful and asked questions in class that were good questions, intelligent questions," said Sheila K. Hyatt, a law professor at the school.
Hyatt said she doesn't remember all her students from two decades ago, but Samour stands out.
"I remember him. And I'm confident that he can handle a case like this," she said.
Samour worked in private practice for four years before taking a job in Ritter's DA office. Ritter said that undoubtedly meant a huge pay cut, and he asked Samour why he was willing to accept that.
"I don't remember precisely what Carlos said, but I remember that it was a commitment to serve the public," Ritter said.
Samour became a district judge in 2007.
In a 2010 survey by the Colorado Commission on Judicial Performance, a state agency that rates judges, 37 attorneys gave Samour his best grade for communication and his lowest grade for application and knowledge of the law.
They gave him an overall grade of 3.38 on a 4-point scale, compared with an average of 3.32 for all district judges that year.
A broader sample that included more than 240 jurors, witnesses, defendants, law-enforcement officers and other non-lawyers gave Samour a grade of 3.79, compared with an average of 3.64 for all district judges.
Samour and Sylvester declined to be interviewed. In a statement to The Associated Press, Sylvester said, "I am confident in Judge Samour's ability to handle a case of this magnitude."
- By Dan Elliott, AP Writer
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