As James Holmes watched his father being cross-examined on the witness stand Wednesday, the convicted Colorado theater shooter reverted to what has become his routine during many of the trial’s more contentious moments: He swiveled.
The conspicuous behavior, almost a tic, has become a hallmark of sorts. From his seat at the defense table, Holmes begins to methodically swivel back and forth in his black office chair.
Robert Holmes was testifying in an effort to sway the jury vote for a life sentence instead of the death penalty for his son.
The defendant’s swivel was steady as Arapahoe County District Attorney George Brauchler quizzed the elder Holmes about the arsenal his son amassed in the months before he opened fire in a Colorado movie theater on July 20, 2012, killing 12 people.
Ten minutes later, Holmes sat slouched and motionless as the video depositions of old family friends and acquaintances were played in court.

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The defendant, James Holmes, stood with his hands in his pockets for an hour on July 16 while Judge Carlos Samour read each guilty verdict against him...
The defendant, James Holmes, stood with his hands in his pockets for an hour on July 16 while Judge Carlos Samour …
Though Holmes’ face has been inscrutable, body language experts say it appears he is seeking comfort and, at moments, showing defiance through his movement in the chair.
“That's a very fascinating combination,” said Patti Wood, a longtime communication and behavioral consultant. “There are so many things he can’t express. He’s probably been coached not to express, but the body lets it out.”
When the adjustments occur is key, much like the actions of a poker player who changes physical demeanor at pivotal moments.
“He swivels at specific times,” Wood said.
Unbeknown to the jury, the 27-year-old is tethered to the floor by a hidden harness and cable.
“He is doing what the chair is allowing him to do — that side-to-side motion to offer himself comfort,” Wood said. “He's rocking himself.”
Lillian Glass, who has authored several books on communication, said it could be that Holmes is anxious because he knows negative details are forthcoming.
“So it’s kind of like a self-soothing technique,” Glass said of his seat turning.
Holmes, who waived his right to testify, pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity to killing 12 and wounding 70 others in the rampage. Defense attorneys argued that the former neuroscience graduate student was in the clutches of a psychotic episode and didn’t know right from wrong when he ambushed the sold-out theater.
“It’s kind of like a self-soothing technique.”
— Lillian Glass, body language expert
On Thursday, the jury is expected to begin a second round of deliberations in the punishment phase. This time, jurors will be asked to decide if the heinousness of the crime outweighs mitigating factors.
If the jury is unanimous in its decision, the case moves to a third phase in which victims’ relatives can testify before jurors decide if he should be sentenced to death or life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Holmes’ chair pivoting was unmistakable during closing arguments of the guilt phase on July 14. Holmes seemed to swivel more than usual as Brauchler pointed a finger him and exclaimed, “Sane, sane, sane — guilty.”
“It was very wide and broad,” said Wood, who watched clips from the closing at the request of Yahoo News. “It went beyond what would be just comfort to more like you're shaking your head no. The chair became the shake ‘no, no, no.’”
Minutes earlier, however, Holmes had been still and stared straight ahead when lead defense attorney Daniel King begged the jury to “accept the mental illness. … You can’t separate the mental illness from him or from this crime.”
[Related: Colorado theater shooter went from happy boy to mass killer]
Throughout the trial, Holmes hasn’t seemed to swivel, at least not noticeably, when Judge Carlos Samour speaks or during routine court matters. Experts say that shows the movement is not random.
“It does mean that, in this case, he does know right from wrong … when to do it and when not to do it,” Glass said.
Holmes, usually dressed in khakis and an Oxford shirt, often turns his head to see photos and other evidence presented on large TV screens.
Sandy Phillips, whose 24-year-old daughter Jessica Ghawi was killed by Holmes, has attended nearly every moment of the trial. Not once, she said, has she seen the defendant show signs of compassion.
“Oh yeah, I watch him all the time,” Phillips said of Holmes. “He gives himself away. I’m always looking for signs that he’s human. How can you look at the autopsy photos of a 6-year-old girl and not have any remorse?”

The 12 who were killed at the movie theater. Click image to open gallery. Top (L to R): Matt McQuinn, Alex Teves, Micayla Medek, Jesse Childress, Jon ...
The 12 who were killed at the movie theater. Click image to open gallery. Top, left to right: Matt McQuinn, Alex …

Veteran jury and trial consultant Robert Hirschhorn said prosecutors and criminal defense lawyers routinely counsel their witnesses or clients how to behave and control their emotions in front of a jury.
“Eighty percent of all communication is nonverbal,” Hirschhorn told Yahoo News. “Body language that changes will be picked up by the jury and scrutinized by them.”
Indeed, on the fourth day of the trial, one juror asked if the defendant’s chair could be moved so she could see his “facial expressions and demeanor.” The seat couldn’t be switched, but a scale replica of the theater was moved to give the jury a better view of his seat at the end of the defense table.
“Many times they’ll have the two defense attorneys, one on either side,” Wood said of Holmes’ seating arrangement. “To have him in that far corner is also interesting to me.”
Holmes is not the first high-profile defendant to let his emotions show.
Despite coaching from his attorneys, Wood said, O.J. Simpson showed facial expressions of rage and anger during his murder trial 20 years ago.
“They can’t help themselves. It just comes out,” she said. “Even a pathological liar — they are mentally ill — but they can still control their body language behaviors. But what makes nonverbal communication so rich and so telling is sometimes they can’t always control all of them. And that’s why we’re seeing this rocking.”
Holmes was standing, not sitting, when Judge Samour delivered the jury’s decision two weeks ago. For an hour, Holmes stood with his hands in his pockets as all 165 counts of guilty were read.
“Symbolically, the hands come out from the heart and often show our emotional state,” Wood said. “Quite often we hide our hands to hide our emotional state, but to hide both hands that way for that length of time shows a bizarre desire to hide all emotion.”
Jason Sickles is a reporter for Yahoo News. Follow him on Twitter (@jasonsickles).
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