Colorado cinema gunman's professors recall quiet, awkward student

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(Reuters) - Lawyers in Colorado's movie massacre trial painted dueling portraits of gunman James Holmes' sanity on Wednesday as they quizzed his former neuroscience professors on his work, attitude and behavior in class.

Holmes has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity to multiple counts of murder and attempted murder for opening fire inside a packed midnight premiere of the Batman film "The Dark Knight Rises" at a Denver area multiplex in July 2012.

Armed with a shotgun, semiautomatic rifle and handgun, he killed 12 people and wounded 70 others. Prosecutors have said they will seek the death penalty for the 27-year-old Southern California native if he is convicted.

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Colorado cinema gunman's professors recall quiet, awkward student
FILE - In this June 4, 2013 file photo, Aurora theater shooting suspect James Holmes is seated in court in Centennial, Colo. Jury selection in the Colorado theater shooting case enters its final stage Monday, April 13, 2015 when attorneys begin questioning prospective jurors as a large group. Prosecutors and defense attorneys will whittle 115 remaining candidates down to 12 jurors and 12 alternates serve in the months-long trial of Holmes. Opening statements are scheduled for April 27. (Andy Cross,/Pool Photo via AP, File)
In this April 22, 2015 photo, Dr. Kirsten Anderson, the Disaster Coordinator with Aurora Mental Health Center, poses for a photo inside the Aurora Strong Resilience Center, a free counseling center opened in 2013 for local residents who have been affected by trauma, in Aurora, Colo. With theater shooting defendant James Holmes' trial starting Monday, April 27, 2015, mental health counselors in Aurora and elsewhere are preparing to help anyone coping with anxiety, flashbacks and other responses to reliving the Aurora theater shootings through testimony and news accounts. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)
In this April 22, 2015 photo, posters adorn the wall of the Aurora Strong Resilience Center, a free counseling center opened in 2013 for local residents who have been affected by trauma, in Aurora, Colo. With theater shooting defendant James Holmes' trial starting Monday, April 27, 2015, mental health counselors in Aurora and elsewhere are preparing to help anyone coping with anxiety, flashbacks and other responses to reliving the Aurora theater shootings through testimony and news accounts. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)
In this April 22, 2015 photo, posters adorn the wall of the Aurora Strong Resilience Center, a free counseling center opened in 2013 for local residents who have been affected by trauma, in Aurora, Colo. With theater shooting defendant James Holmes' trial starting Monday, April 27, 2015, mental health counselors in Aurora and elsewhere are preparing to help anyone coping with anxiety, flashbacks and other responses to reliving the Aurora theater shootings through testimony and news accounts. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)
In this April 22, 2015 photo, handwritten notes adorn "The Resilience Tree," inside the Aurora Strong Resilience Center, a free counseling center opened in 2013 for local residents who have been affected by trauma, in Aurora, Colo. With theater shooting defendant James Holmes' trial starting Monday, April 27, 2015, mental health counselors in Aurora and elsewhere are preparing to help anyone coping with anxiety, flashbacks and other responses to reliving the Aurora theater shootings through testimony and news accounts. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)
In this April 22, 2015, photo, a bird-motifed mobile decorates the inside of the Aurora Strong Resilience Center, a free counseling center opened in 2013 for local residents who have been affected by trauma, in Aurora, Colo. With theater shooting defendant James Holmes' trial starting Monday, April 27, 2015, mental health counselors in Aurora and elsewhere are preparing to help anyone coping with anxiety, flashbacks and other responses to reliving the Aurora theater shootings through testimony and news accounts. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)
In this April 22, 2015 photo, handwritten notes adorn "The Resilience Tree," inside the Aurora Strong Resilience Center, a free counseling center opened in 2013 for local residents who have been affected by trauma, in Aurora, Colo. With theater shooting defendant James Holmes' trial starting Monday, April 27, 2015, mental health counselors in Aurora and elsewhere are preparing to help anyone coping with anxiety, flashbacks and other responses to reliving the Aurora theater shootings through testimony and news accounts. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)
People enter and leave the Arapahoe County District Court in Centennial, Colo., Monday April 13, 2015. The jury selection process in the trial of Aurora theater shooting suspect James Holmes entered its final stage Monday when attorneys began questioning prospective jurors as a large group. Holmes is charged with killing 12 people and wounding more than 50 in a crowded Aurora, Colorado movie theater in 2013. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)
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Just weeks before the rampage, Holmes dropped out of a doctoral program at the graduate school of the University of Colorado's Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora, the Denver suburb where the onslaught took place.

Prosecutors say Holmes carried out the massacre because he had lost his career, girlfriend and purpose in life. Holmes' lawyers say he suffers from schizophrenia and heard voices telling him to kill.

Two professors who supervised him at the medical school told jurors he was a quiet student who excelled in written work but appeared to lack effort in the lab, was socially awkward, and sometimes used jokes in presentations that fell flat with classmates.

Assistant Professor Achim Klug, who oversaw Holmes' first assigned stint in a laboratory, said the defendant would only speak when called on, but that he usually got the answer right.

Holmes earned a top A grade in his written midterm exams, Klug said, but there were doubts about his attitude in the lab, where initiative and teamwork are equally important.

'NO ONE CAN BE AN ISLAND'

"He could have worked harder," Klug told jurors in Arapahoe County District Court in Centennial, another Denver suburb.

The jury was also shown a colorful slideshow Holmes made of his research at the time, on how proteins interact in the brain, which was largely baffling in its complexity.

First-year students typically work in three labs before focusing their study. Professor Mark Dell'Acqua, who oversaw Holmes' second lab rotation, also remembered a polite, professional student who was never angry or overly animated.

Under questioning from Holmes' public defenders, both professors said he was quieter than other students.

Dell'Acqua was asked by defense lawyer Tamara Brady whether someone that withdrawn could be a success in neuroscience.

"No one can be an island and succeed," Dell'Acqua replied. He said Holmes probably relied on humor in presentations more than his classmates.

In one case, Klug recounted, Holmes used slides, including a chicken-and-egg joke apparently unrelated to his work, and a photo of a boy with a "mullet" haircut with the caption: "That's a good question, let me mullet over."

Klug said it seemed the jokes fell flat with the audience.

The court heard on Tuesday from Sukumar Vijayaraghavan, a professor of physiology and member of the program's admissions committee. He said they get about 70 applications for six spots, and only about a dozen candidates get interviews.

"I rated him quite highly," Vijayaraghavan said of Holmes. "He was quiet, definitely socially awkward, but someone who had the caliber to join the program."

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