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May 27, 2015 2:59 AM

Colorado theater shooting victims relive terror in courtroom

The Associated Press

CENTENNIAL, Colo. (AP) From the witness stand, Christina Blache could finally do what she had most wanted and most feared: She looked for the first time at the man who shot her, who killed her friend, who ravaged so many lives.

Her muscles tensed. Her nerves tingled. She fought back tears.

"I'd never faced him before. I wanted to see who did it and I wanted to be able to try to look him in the eye," Blache said. "You go through three years of healing and learning, you know, how to walk again and how to swim, how to skate, how to do everything you've learned from the age you were born. All over again. And to look at him ..."

Blache, an Iraq war veteran, went on to describe the sharp bursts of gunfire, the searing pain of bullets through both her legs, the sight of her friend Alex Sullivan, lifeless on the floor.

Prosecutors have called more than 144 witnesses in the first month of the death penalty trial of James Holmes, who has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. Fifty-one were shooting survivors, and for many, testifying has provided a combination of catharsis and terror.

They've approached the stand with brave faces. They've chuckled at warm memories of their friends. They've had prolonged pauses and tearful breakdowns. Some felt sudden relief after doing their part. Others felt there was too much left unsaid.

A monumental public and private effort has helped survivors cope in the nearly three years since Holmes killed 12 people and injured 70 others at the packed premiere of a Batman movie. The shooting fostered a new push to address mental health issues nationwide, and in Colorado, lawmakers funded a $20 million expansion of state mental health services, creating a 24-hour hotline for those in crisis and a dozen drop-in counseling centers.

On a local level, the Aurora Strong Resilience Center opened to offer therapy to victims of trauma. And the Aurora Mental Health Center, the lead agency helping the victims, spent more than $2 million responding to the shooting before the trial began. The agency formed a community support team that has served more than 1,700 affected people, said the agency's disaster coordinator, psychologist Kirsten Anderson. Two team members have been in the courthouse daily, coaching victims on managing their emotions on the stand and coping thereafter.

"This is an incredibly resilient group of people who have worked really hard to get their lives back," Anderson said. "This trial sets a lot of people back and forces them to relive an awful night."

Blache offered to be among the first to testify, eager to put it behind her. But when she took the stand, only about five feet from where Holmes sits, she was a bundle of nerves.

"I was shaking because I was trying to hold composure," she said. "I didn't want to let him see any kind of emotion, anything he could feed off of."

But Holmes wouldn't meet her gaze. And as she glanced down at him between questions, she realized she wasn't nervous about him anymore.

Prosecutors had told her to remember to breathe. But they didn't tell her until that day that they would be showing pictures, including one of Sullivan, smiling and alive.

"I didn't get to see him again like that, so it was a little heart-wrenching," she said. "It hit me pretty hard."

More than a year before the trial, prosecutors gave Munirih Gravelly a rundown of questions they might ask. She spent months obsessing over what to say.

Yet when it was her turn to testify, she almost didn't get out of her chair.

"It felt like a test," Gravelly said. "I kept thinking I didn't want to trip over my words."

Gravelly described how she huddled between rows of seats when the gunshots began. Her face was wet, and she figured it was spilled soda. But when the lights came on, she realized it was blood, and not her own. Her friend Jesse Childress was facedown, dying. People were yelling that they needed to leave.

"I had to step over him to get out," she said. She dreaded having to explain that to the jury.

Gravelly couldn't sleep the night before she testified. She agonized over the smallest things: Don't eat too big a breakfast, but enough to get through the morning. Wear comfortable clothes, but nothing so casual it might undermine what she had to say.

Prosecutors had advised survivors to bring a support system. Gravelly brought her mom. But on the stand, surrounded by attorneys, jurors, the judge and a packed gallery, she felt utterly alone.

"It was a bit of an out-of-body experience," she said.

Like many of the survivors, she wasn't prepared for a flurry of interruptions from defense attorneys objecting to the more emotional parts of her story.

Ryan Lumba and Louis Duran had gone to the movie together, sat together and were shot together, so they wanted to testify together, too.

"We just encouraged each other," said Lumba, 20, who was shot through the left side, bullets piercing his lung and arm. When he woke up in a hospital, part of his intestine was gone.

Duran testified first. He was hit in the face and arm and recalled blood running down his face, blinding him. He held strong on the stand, but tears welled up when he returned to his seat.

"I told him this would be the last step for him," Lumba said. "He needed to emotionally and mentally get over the hump of what happened three years ago."

Lumba gave him a pat on the back. He was up next.


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