(AP Photo/The Denver Post, RJ Sangosti, Pool)In about a week, District Attorney George Brauchler will be giving his opening statement in the Aurora theater shooting trial. But he's made it clear for years that he's seeking the death penalty for the gunman who killed 12 people at a midnight showing of "The Dark Knight Rises."
That's despite a standing offer from the defense to plead guilty in return for life in prison, leading many to question his motives.
Two years ago, Brauchler stepped to the podium in court. To his left sat, James Holmes, the perpetrator of one of the worst mass shootings in American history. That was when Brauchler told the judge he would pursue capital punishment.
"Justice is death," he said.
Political motivations to seek the death penalty?
Some believe the statement was born more of ambition than justice.
"This is seemingly well-calculated to help his political career," said Dan Recht, a criminal defense attorney and former public defender.
Recht says Brauchler, a Republican, could have accepted a plea of guilty, prevented a trial, saved millions of dollars and a lot of heartache.
"This will elevate his profile, his name recognition, his status as a conservative politician," said Recht. "And increase the likelihood that he can win the conservative vote in Colorado when he runs for higher office."
Brauchler wouldn’t grant an interview, citing a gag order from the court regarding pre-trial publicity. But his supporters say if any case cried out for the ultimate punishment it’s this one.
There’s no doubt that Brauchler’s fledgling political career is closely tied to the death penalty. When Governor John Hickenlooper granted a temporary stay of execution for Nathan Dunlap -- who killed 4 people in 1993 -- Brauchler passionately rebuked him.
"Yep, you hear frustration and anger in my voice, because those victims that have waited patiently for justice for 20 years will now wait for years more."
Suddenly, Brauchler was talked about as a challenger for Hickenlooper in 2014. He eventually declined to run.
"Frankly, I admire greatly his willingness to do the job that he was hired to do," said former Colorado Republican Party Chariman Ryan Call, "and fulfill his commitment to the voters who elected him to be their District Attorney."
The task ahead
Brauchler’s good friend and former colleague Dan Deasy says Brauchler is pursuing this case and this punishment out of a genuine sense of duty.
"He can’t walk away from that for what people perceive to be his own aspirations, said Deasy. "I mean he wanted to handle the Holmes case, and that’s what he’s doing."
And Deasy says the trial is in good hands. George Brauchler is not only a lawyer, but a Lieutenant Colonel in the Army Reserve, previously deployed to Iraq. He’s also an accomplished law professor. And he’s tried more than 150 cases.
"There is nobody who I would want handling that case more than I would want George handling that case," said Deasy. "And you know what? I wish I was a part of that team...what an experience."
Deasy says this is clearly the most high profile case in Colorado history.
As a deputy prosecutor, Brauchler tried the only felony cases to stem from the Columbine shooting: A couple of minor charges against a couple of gun sellers.
Shortly after the Aurora shooting, Brauchler, then a candidate for District Attorney, was surprised to find himself in the middle of the action again.
"I bet if I asked you 15 years ago, ‘hey, there’s going to be two of the biggest shootings in the history of the United States here, and they’re going to happen right here where we live,’ you would laugh. You would say, ‘no, come on now. Not in Colorado, and yet here we are."
One big difference in the Aurora case: the killer will stand trial.