BOULDER (AP) — The defendant in a 2021 mass shooting at a Colorado supermarket pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity Tuesday, as a judge ruled that the case can move to trial following testimony that the suspect killed eight of his 10 victims in just over a minute using a gun with a high-capacity magazine.
Attorneys for Ahmad Al Aliwi Alissa entered the plea on his behalf before District Court Judge Ingrid Bakke in Boulder. Clad in an orange and white striped jail uniform, Alissa looked down in court and at times at the judge as she advised him of his rights.
A plea of not guilty by reason of insanity means defense attorneys are claiming mental illness prevented Alissa from understanding right from wrong when a crime was committed. If successful, it could allow Alissa to avoid prison and instead be committed indefinitely to the state mental hospital.
He’s charged with 10 counts of murder, 15 counts of attempted murder and other offenses. Neither his attorneys nor anyone else has disputed that Alissa was the gunman.
Tuesday’s hearing was held to decide if there was enough evidence for Alissa, who has schizophrenia, to go on trial in the March 22, 2021, shooting at a crowded King Soopers store in Boulder, about 30 miles (50 kilometers) northwest of Denver.
Bakke ruled after Boulder Police Detective Sarah Cantu described how the gunman began firing as soon as he got out of his car at the supermarket in the college town of Boulder. She said he targeted individuals who were moving and continued firing at them until they were dead, killing most of his victims within 69 seconds.
“He found moving targets, pursued them and shot them until they stopped moving,” Cantu said as prosecutors laid out their case. The mentally ill defendant was recently deemed competent to stand trial in the shootings after being forcibly medicated so that he could understand the proceedings.
He’s accused of killing nine shoppers and workers inside and outside the store as well as Officer Eric Talley, a father of seven and one of the first three police officers who entered the store. All but one of the victims were shot multiple times and everyone who was shot was killed, Cantu testified.
The perpetrator of a 2012 mass shooting at an Aurora, Colorado movie theater also pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. But jurors in that case rejected the plea and sentenced defendant James Holmes to life in prison for the murders of 12 people.
Prosecutor Michael Dougherty said Alissa had six high capacity magazines, adding that their role in the shooting highlights why possessing the devices is illegal in Colorado.
“This defendant came armed and ready to kill as many innocent defenseless and unarmed people as quickly as he could,” Dougherty said. “He killed eight of them within 69 seconds. He was able to do that because of the large capacity magazines.”
Authorities have not determined a motive for Alissa, Cantu said. But a forensic psychologist testified at a hearing in September that the 24-year-old Alissa bought firearms to carry out a mass shooting and indicated “there was some intention to commit suicide by cop.” Authorities have said Alissa legally purchased the AR-556 pistol, which resembles a rifle, used in the attack.
At the September hearing, forensic psychologist Loandra Torres also told the judge that Alissa knows his fingerprints were found on guns that could be used as evidence against him. He was arrested in the store after being shot by a police officer, part of a second wave of law enforcement that entered the store after the officer Talley was killed.
Tuesday’s hearing was a required step in Alissa’s prosecution, which until recently had been stalled because of his mental health.
For families of victims, it was an important milestone. Robert Olds, whose niece Rikki Olds was killed, was in the front row of the courtroom. He said he wanted justice on behalf of his niece, a 25-year-old front-end manager at the supermarket.
“It’s the last fight, the last stand for my niece who can’t be here to do that herself because this guy murdered her,” Robert Olds said.
Alissa was declared mentally incompetent in late 2021 and sent to the state mental hospital for treatment. After he was forcibly medicated, experts this summer said Alissa’s condition had improved significantly. Last month, Bakke ruled that Alissa was competent to be prosecuted over the objections of the defense.
Evaluations throughout 2021 and 2022 found Alissa incompetent largely due to his inability to communicate clearly and at times his outright refusal to discuss the allegations against him, authorities had testified.
Alissa’s family immigrated from Syria. He became a U.S. citizen and they lived in a middle-class neighborhood in a Denver suburb, where the family also had a restaurant.
The only known problem prior to the shooting was in 2018 when Alissa was convicted of assaulting a fellow high school student, a misdemeanor, according to police documents.