CENTENNIAL, Colo. – A bearded and bushy-haired James Holmes sat quietly as a packed courtroom waited Tuesday for a plea that could help shed light on a deadly shooting rampage he is accused of perpetrating in a crowded Colorado movie theater last summer.

Instead, his lawyers told the judge they weren’t ready to enter a plea — despite numerous delays since the July 20 attack that killed 12 people and injured 70 at a midnight showing of “The Dark Knight Rises.”

“So how am I supposed to make an informed decision?” Judge William Sylvester asked pointedly, his gaze fixed on defense lawyer Daniel King, before the judge entered a not guilty plea on Holmes’ behalf.

Victims were relieved by Sylvester’s action.

“We’re just so thankful we’re able to move forward,” said Marcus Weaver, who was shot in the arm in the attack.

Legal experts said the defense’s statement may be part of a larger strategy to avoid the death penalty. Holmes can still change his plea to not guilty by reason of insanity, and he can wait to do so until after prosecutors announce whether they will seek the death penalty.

That makes it easier for the defense to plan its best case. Holmes could plead insanity and would wind up in a mental hospital indefinitely — and would never face execution — if the jury finds in his favor.