Many stories of the theater shooting’s painful legacy, which families say remains as raw and urgent as ever, have gone untold in court.
AURORA, Colo. — Before the bullets and bloodshed in the movie theater, Stefan Moton was a teenager who did push-ups and boxing exercises in his bedroom, his dreams fixed on becoming a mixed-martial-arts fighter. Now, his goals are humbler: Strengthen the sections of his upper body that he can still move. Maybe get a new tattoo. Feed himself again.
“I just try to push it aside and move on,” he said. “Focus on getting better.”
Moton, 21 — who was shot through the spine, leaving him paralyzed from the chest down — is among scores of survivors who have taken the witness stand in the murder trial of James Holmes, the former neuroscience graduate student charged with carrying out the midnight rampage at an Aurora multiplex in July 2012. But testimony is narrowly focused on the scene inside Theater 9 and whether the gunman was sane or insane when he opened fire. Many stories of Aurora’s painful legacy, which families say remains as raw and urgent as ever, have gone untold in court.
Jurors did not hear about how Moton’s family has been trying to find money to buy a van to accommodate his wheelchair. They have not heard about the victims’ parents who break down sobbing outside the courtroom, the survivors coping with debilitating nerve pain, or the ones who have lost jobs or ended up losing apartments and floating from couch to couch because of depression and lingering trauma.
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“A lot of these kids who testified, some didn’t have medical insurance,” said Anita Busch, whose cousin, Micayla Medek, was among the 12 people killed in the shooting, and who has been an advocate for people affected by it. “Some were college-age and working minimum-wage jobs,” Busch added. “They’re out on their own and struggling to make it.”
Medek, 23, had been taking classes at Aurora Community College and working at a sandwich shop, and went to the movie that night with a group of about 10 friends.
Experts in mass shootings say Aurora’s experience offers a glimpse into the arduous way forward for families and survivors after such events.
In Colorado, it took three years and multiple delays before the trial started in April. The victims’ families and survivors received regular updates from prosecutors, and questions about their feelings about the case. Would families of the dead support the death penalty if the defendant were convicted? Would a wounded victim want to testify? Could victims handle talking publicly about what they saw and felt?
Moton’s older brother, Lamar, was also in the theater that night. The brothers, best friends growing up, were lifelong comic-book fans and giddy about seeing the last installment of Christopher Nolan’s “Batman” saga at the Century 16 theaters in Aurora. Lamar, who escaped the shooting without injury, says he helps support the family with a part-time job doing maintenance work and gardening. At home, he and Stefan still talk about comics, movies and ultimate fighting, but now the older brother cuts the younger one’s hair, or changes the channel when Stefan wants to watch something else.
Lamar Moton said he had no interest in testifying and reliving the attack. But Stefan Moton decided he did. During the week before he took the stand, he said, he thought about what he would say and tried to tamp down his nervousness about testifying in a courtroom packed with lawyers and jurors, sitting a few feet away from the man charged with shooting him.
After blowing into a tube to steer his wheelchair toward the witness stand, Stefan Moton described how he had watched a gas canister arc across the theater and felt a bullet strike him. He tried to call for Lamar, and then awoke in the hospital days later, paralyzed.
“I tried to call out to my brother,” he testified, his face almost shielded by a red hoodie. “I couldn’t get the words out.”
Days later, sitting on the patio of the apartment in Aurora where he and his family moved after the shooting and where the rent is paid through a victims fund, Moton said he was glad he had testified.
“At first I didn’t really want to,” he said. “I didn’t want to see him.” But once he was done, he said: “It felt like a weight lifted off my chest.”
It was a one-day test, but for a small knot of families, the trial has become a monthslong vigil. The seats for the news media and relatives — packed during opening statements — have slowly emptied, but a handful of mothers and fathers attend day after day. They sit on the right side of the courtroom gallery, the side with the half-empty tissue boxes, holding hands, taking notes.
They are allowed to cry in court, but audible sobs are against the judge’s rules. So during a particularly wrenching moment — an autopsy description, or an explanation of a bullet’s destructive path — they walk into the hallway or the quiet room with counselors, therapy dogs and other victims’ relatives.
“It kind of catches you off guard,” said Lonnie Phillips, whose stepdaughter, Jessica Ghawi, a budding sports reporter, was killed. “If you hold it in for a long time, you can’t even imagine when it’s going to hit, and what’s going to trigger it.”
“What gets us through is each other,” said Sandy Phillips, Ghawi’s mother.
The Phillipses rented out their home in San Antonio, sold all their furniture, packed their dogs into a camper trailer and drove to Colorado to spend the summer at the courthouse. Sandy Phillips wears her daughter’s green scarf, and she and her husband talk about the day’s testimony each day: what was hard, what hurt, what upset them.
Away from the courtroom, the families hug and cry and ask, “Are you doing OK?” Some have joined to lobby for stricter gun-control laws, an effort that succeeded in Colorado and failed nationally. Some have paid bills for survivors who have struggled financially since the shooting.
The families and survivors form a huge group with varied levels of need. About 400 people were in the theater that night, and more were in an adjacent theater whose walls were penetrated by bullets. Families of the dead and people who were seriously wounded received hundreds of thousands of dollars from a $5 million victims fund. Others, who were not injured but still jump at the sound of thunder that reminds them of gunshots, got nothing.
The Phillipses are among 70 family members of people killed in mass shootings — in Aurora, at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut, in Columbine and elsewhere — who helped create a charity, the National Compassion Fund, to assist people after such attacks. Others have taken smaller steps: Jerri Jackson, the mother of Matt McQuinn, who died after flinging himself over his girlfriend to protect her from the gunfire in the theater, started an effort to fund small acts of kindness.
Jackson traveled to Aurora from Springfield, Ohio, to attend a week of the trial. Dealing with depression and post-traumatic stress, she quit her job as a claims analyst for a trucking company and has been living mostly on disability checks. She stayed away from the Arapahoe County courthouse through the marathon of pretrial hearings, but once the jury started hearing testimony, she said she needed to be there.
“There’s something inside that says, ‘I need to do this for my son,’” she said.