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Face to face with Aurora's bereaved, all James Holmes could do was stare blankly ahead

James Holmes makes his first appearance, facing charges that could lead to the death penalty

Relatives of those killed in a massacre at a showing of the new Batman movie came face-to-face with the man accused of unleashing the mayhem yesterday – his shock of orange hair giving him the appearance of the Joker character he told police he was emulating.

Dressed in maroon prison garb, his hands and legs bound by a chain, James Eagan Holmes was brought into a Denver-area courthouse yesterday for his first appearance on what prosecutors said would be a slew of first-degree murder charges that could lead to the death penalty.

Looking dazed or drugged, he stared either blankly ahead or down at his lap, and nodded as if almost asleep for the duration of the 12-minute hearing. After District Judge William Sylvester advised Holmes of his rights and asked if he had any questions, Holmes's defence attorney, Dan King, replied his client would not be saying anything.

The 24-year-old doctoral research drop-out is accused of opening fire at the Century 16 cinema in the Denver suburb of Aurora during a midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises on Friday, killing 12 and injuring 58 others – the largest number of casualties recorded in a mass shooting in the US.

Five members of families who lost loved ones in the massacre sat amidst officials from the public prosecutor's office and victims' advocates on the public benches of the courtroom located in the Arapahoe County Justice Centre in Centennial, part of the Denver metropolitan area. One young woman sobbed throughout the hearing, holding hands with a friend.

David Sanchez's pregnant daughter Katie escaped the cinema unhurt, but her husband, Caleb Medley, remains in a critical condition in hospital after being shot in the head.

"It makes you a little bit more angry," Mr Sanchez said after the hearing. He added that he would want Holmes to be punished by death if convicted.

In Colorado, it is the families of victims who decide whether to push for the death penalty in a case of first-degree murder. Carol Chambers, District Attorney, said that a decision on whether this becomes a capital case will not come soon, and will not be easy.

Arapahoe County District Attorney Carol Chambers said she would consult with the victims and families of the dead before making a decision on seeking the death penalty.

Ms Chambers, who has prosecuted two of the three inmates now on Colorado's death row, told reporters outside the courthouse that the decision on the death penalty had to be made within 60 days of his arraignment, "so it's months down the line."

It was not clear whether any of Holmes's family attended the hearing, but a lawyer retained by the family, Lisa Damiani, held a press conference to clarify a remark by the suspect's mother to an ABC TV reporter soon after the shooting.

Ms Damiani, speaking in San Diego, said that at the time of that early morning phone call, Arlene Holmes was not yet aware of the attack or accusations that her son was involved.

In telling the reporter, "You have the right person," Arlene Holmes was confirming her identity and not referring to her son. The attorney said Arlene Holmes's comment to ABC had been misconstrued by some media to suggest that she was not surprised to hear that her son had been involved in the shooting rampage.

Ms Damiani also said that the family was "doing as well as they can" under the circumstance.

For now, Holmes has not been charged. Prosecutors asked for, and were given, until Monday to present an indictment. Defence attorneys requested, and were given, permission for their experts to examine the crime scenes – the still-closed cinema and Holmes's North Aurora apartment.

The court also ordered that both sides be granted access to Holmes's academic records from the University of Colorado. Police hope that these might provide some answers as to what turned a quiet but apparently unthreatening straight-A student into someone who would spend months building a massive arsenal of weaponry, ammunition and riot gear, rig his apartment with a home-made bomb and set off to kill indiscriminately.

President Barack Obama, who spent several hours on Sunday talking with families of the dead and with survivors, told the story of 21-year-old Stephanie Davies, whose friend Allie Young was one of the first people to be shot. Stephanie kept one hand on her friend's neck wound and dialled 911 with her other, keeping the pressure on Allie's punctured vein for the whole rampage, before carrying her to an ambulance. "It's worth spending most of our time reflecting on young Americans like Allie and Stephanie, because they represent what's best in us, and assure us that out of this darkness a brighter day is going to come," Mr Obama said.

It was a sentiment echoed at a memorial for the victims held in Aurora on Sunday night. Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper read the names of the dead and after each one, the crowd chanted: "We will remember them."