* Judge: Preliminary hearing may be put off until January or February
* Defense complains media meddling is delaying their work * Former neuroscience graduate student killed 12 in attack
(Updates with details from hearing)
By Keith Coffman
CENTENNIAL, Colo., Oct 11 (Reuters) - Attorneys for accused Colorado gunman James Holmes on Thursday proposed postponing a preliminary hearing on the merits of the case against him, likely until next year, while complaining that media meddling was delaying their work.
Arapahoe County District Court Judge William Sylvester, responding to defense plans to file a motion seeking a delay in the sensational case, said the hearing could occur in January or February.
Holmes, a 24-year-old former neuroscience graduate student, is accused of opening fire inside a suburban Denver movie theater during a midnight screening of the Batman movie "The Dark Knight Rises" on July 20.
The rampage, one of the worst outbursts of U.S. gun violence in recent years, killed 12 people and wounded 58.
"The defense investigation has been impeded because of the conduct of the media," Holmes' lawyer Daniel King said in court, arguing that responding to media motions for wider access to court filings in the case has been distracting, and some witnesses have gone underground to avoid media attention.
"We haven't begun to understand the nature and depth of Mr. Holmes' mental illness," he said, citing distractions.
Holmes appeared in court handcuffed and shackled, and watched the hour-long proceedings largely without reaction. He had grown the beginnings of a beard and mutton-chop sideburns, with no trace of the red hair dye he sported at his arrest in July.
Discussion of delaying the preliminary hearing follows a motion filed by prosecutors on Tuesday to beef up the charges against Holmes by adding 14 additional counts of attempted first degree murder, court records show.
Prosecutors have charged Holmes with multiple counts for each victim in a move that could give them more than one potential pathway to secure convictions.
Holmes faces 24 counts of first-degree murder and appears to face 140 attempted murder counts, although redactions in the court record have obscured a precise accounting of the charges.
SPARRING OVER MEDIA LEAKS
Prosecutors have depicted Holmes as a young man whose once promising academic career was in tatters. He failed graduate school oral board exams in June, and a professor suggested he may not have been a good fit for his competitive PhD. program.
Prosecutors accuse Holmes of amassing an arsenal of weapons as part of a plan to commit mass murder. The night of the rampage, he bought a movie ticket then slipped outside, armed himself and returned to the theater where he sprayed moviegoers with gunfire, they said.
King, who analysts have said appears to be laying the groundwork for a possible insanity defense, has said his client suffers from an unspecified mental illness and had tried to get help before the shooting.
In court on Thursday, Holmes' public defenders complained that his right to a fair trial had been jeopardized when someone in law enforcement leaked details of a package Holmes sent to a psychiatrist, in violation of a gag order imposed by the judge.
The parcel purportedly contained a notebook detailing plans for the theater rampage, according to a Fox News report.
"We need to flush out who called the media," defense attorney Tamara Brady said in court, adding that they wanted to know who had access to the package when it was being examined.
Holmes' lawyers, who are asking the judge to impose sanctions on prosecutors for the disclosures, said they have received 16,000 pages of documents they say support their belief that the government side leaked the information.
Prosecutors retorted that they were unable to respond to the "vague allegations" made by the defense, noting the motion does not identify the specific information that public defenders are complaining about, or if the media reports were even true.
Sylvester did not rule on the dispute, and will hear more arguments about the leak at a hearing on Oct. 25.
(Writing by Mary Slosson; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Eric Walsh)
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Keywords: USA SHOOTING/DENVER