* Judge: Preliminary hearing may be put off until January or February
* Defense complains media meddling is delaying their work
* Former neuroscience graduate student accused of killing 12 in attack
(Adds details on rampage from civil lawsuit)
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 incidents of gun violence in recent years, killed 12 people and wounded 58.
"The defense investigation has been impeded because of the conduct of the media," defense lawyer Daniel King said in court, adding that media motions for wider access to court filings has been distracting, and some witnesses have gone underground.
"We haven't begun to understand the nature and depth of Mr. Holmes' mental illness," he said.
Holmes appeared in court handcuffed and shackled, and watched the 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.
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 weapons as part of a mass murder plot. 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.
Holmes stopped shooting when one of his guns jammed, after which theater lights remained dim and the movie continued to play, according to a civil suit filed on Thursday against Cinemark USA, which owns the theater where the rampage occurred.
The suit, filed by three people hurt in the shooting and the father of 18-year-old Alexander Boik, who was killed, said the theater provided insufficient security and seeks damages for negligence and wrongful death.
Cinemark, owned by Plano, Texas-based Cinemark Holdings Inc , did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but has said it could not have foreseen or prevented the "criminal equivalent of a meteor falling from the sky."
In court on Thursday, Holmes' lawyers 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 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 she wanted to know who had access to the package when it was being examined.
Holmes' lawyers, who analysts have said may be laying the groundwork for an insanity defense, have said Holmes suffers from mental illness and tried to get help before the shooting.
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" 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.
(Additional reporting by Robert Boczkiewicz and Mary Slosson; Writing by Mary Slosson; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Eric Walsh)
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Keywords: USA SHOOTING/DENVER