DENVER (CN) - The man charged with killing three people at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs could be sentenced to death if convicted of first-degree murder, the judge in his case said Monday at the initial hearing.
Robert Lewis Dear, 57, is accused of killing three people and wounding nine during a 6-hour standoff with police the day after Thanksgiving. Politicians on both sides of the aisle have mostly refrained from accusing him of choosing Planned Parenthood for the slaughter for political reasons, though the killings have kept aboil the nationwide fight over government funding for the women's health nonprofit, and Dear was widely reported to have spoken about "baby parts" after police arrested him.
Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, however, called the killings "terrorism," as they were meant "to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion."
Dear, wrapped in a white suicide-prevention vest, spoke via video camera from El Paso (Colorado) County Jail to Fourth Judicial District Chief Judge Gilbert Martinez. Dear appeared to slur the few words he spoke during the 12-minute initial hearing.
"The initial charge is murder in the first degree," said Judge Martinez said. "The penalty is a minimum of life in prison and a maximum of death."
Dear stood beside his attorney, Daniel King, the public defender who represented "Batman" mass murderer James Holmes at his trial this year.
The killings focused renewed attention - as if it were needed - on the controversial, heavily edited video recordings made surreptitiously inside a Planned Parenthood office, in which anti-abortion crusaders claim Planned Parenthood employees spoke about selling aborted fetal tissue.
Planned Parenthood CEO Vicki Cowart said over the weekend that her organization was not a coincidental target.
"Eyewitnesses confirm that the man who will be charged with the tragic and senseless shooting that resulted in the deaths of three people and injuries to nine others at Planned Parenthood's health center in Colorado Springs was motivated by opposition to safe and legal abortion," Cowart said in a statement.
"This is an appalling act of violence targeting access to health care and terrorizing skilled and dedicated healthcare professionals."
U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee called the shooting spree a "mental health crisis," rather than terrorism.
"I don't think it would fall under quite the definition of domestic terrorism, although I'll leave that to the Justice Department to make that determination," McCaul said on ABC-TV's "This Week."
Dear is charged with murdering University of Colorado police Officer Garrett Swasey, Iraq War veteran Ke'arre Stewart, and Jennifer Markovsky, a mother of two who was at the Planned Parenthood to support a friend.
"This is not normal. We can't let it become normal," President Barack Obama said in a statement. "If we truly care about this - if we're going to offer up our thoughts and prayers again, for God knows how many times, with a truly clean conscience - then we have to do something about the easy accessibility of weapons of war on our streets to people who have no business wielding them. Period. Enough is enough.
"We don't yet know what this particular gunman's so-called motive was for shooting 12 people, or for terrorizing an entire community, when he opened fire with an assault weapon and took hostages at a Planned Parenthood center in Colorado. What we do know is that he killed a cop in the line of duty, along with two of the citizens that police officer was trying to protect. We know that law enforcement saved lives, as so many of them do every day, all across America. And we know that more Americans and their families had fear forced upon them."
Dear is due back in court for arraignment on Dec. 9.
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