George Brauchler is seeking re-election as district attorney for the 18th Judicial District, but it's not exactly a race. The Democrats didn't bother putting up a candidate for the office, and even if they had, Brauchler, a GOP up-and-comer who flirted with a U.S. Senate run before changing his mind, would have been a virtual lock in the heavily Republican area anyhow. He certainly is now; he's running unopposed.
Yet over the weeks and months leading up to the election, Brauchler has made the sort of appearances generally associated with campaigns, including a talk with residents at Holly Creek, a 55-and-older housing complex. However, the topic of conversation — his unsuccessful death-penalty prosecution of Aurora theater shooter James Holmes — was one that stirs mixed feelings among voters whether they're for or against capital punishment.
That goes for Brauchler, too. When asked if he has any regrets about seeking the death penalty the year after Holmes's August 2015 sentencing to life in prison without the possibility of parole, he replies with surprising straightforwardness.
"Any regrets?" he asks. "Sure."
Not that he's willing to say the effort was entirely misbegotten. Indeed, he mainly feels bad for putting Holmes's victims through an extended litigation effort only to fall short of his goal: seeing that Holmes received the ultimate punishment for murdering twelve people and attempting to kill seventy more at the midnight premiere of The Dark Knight Rises at the Aurora Century 16 on July 20, 2012.
As Brauchler notes, he's done presentations about the trial "all over the state and several places around the country." As for why he did so at Holly Creek, he says, "They're constituents, and that matters to me. But this was a case where a district attorney starts the machine of government to try and take another person's life, and that's a big-time moral decision. It's also a decision that signs up our office and the community for a certain expense of taxpayer dollars."
During the prosecutorial process, "I could discuss none of that," Brauchler continues. "But I made promises, repeated promises, to the media and the public. Everywhere I went, I said, 'I can't talk about the case now, but I promise you when it's over that I'll go to as many places as ask me to answer the critical questions about this. Why did you do it? Why didn't you take the plea? How much did you spend?'"
Brauchler answered the first two questions as early as 2013, when he announced at a court hearing that after personally speaking to sixty family members of the twelve deceased victims and plenty of other individuals, including people who were in the theater at the time of the attack, he had concluded that "for James Eagan Holmes, justice is death." As for the costs, one estimate puts the total at around $3 million.
The jury subsequently found Holmes guilty of murder, but because the group's verdict in the death-penalty phase of the trial wasn't unanimous, he was sentenced to life without parole. That left Brauchler to wonder if his efforts had been worth the pain through which survivors and loved ones of the slain had been put over a protracted period of time, especially since Holmes's legal team had been willing to accept the very punishment he wound up getting from the very beginning.
"Afterward, the process we went through was to sit down with every single juror and alternate juror who was willing to come in and talk with us," Brauchler points out. "I think I probably talked to thirteen or fourteen of the seventeen. I haven't talked to the one juror who said, 'I'm never going to vote for the death penalty,' but with the ones I talked to, I asked, 'God forbid, if something like this was to happen in this jurisdiction again, what do you want me to do?'"
Their reply: "To a person, they said, 'If this happened again, you've got to seek death.'"
Even so, Brauchler concedes that "my initial reaction to not achieving the sentence I put us on the path to achieve was pure regret. I went into the courtroom next to the one we were in, and all the victims were in there. My throat closed up on me and my eyes welled up, and I said, 'I'm sorry.' I told the cops in the hallway the same thing, too: 'I'm sorry I put us on the path to this and then we didn't get the result I thought was justice.'"
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By Brauchler's telling, the "overwhelming response" he received was, "'Don't apologize for anything. This was the right thing.' Even the victims who were adamantly opposed to seeking death early on pulled me aside and said, 'I get it. I totally get why you did it. My opinion doesn't change about the death penalty, but if you hadn't done it, we wouldn't have known everything that we know about our son's death, our daughter's death, our loved one's death. I totally get why you did this.' And they've been some of my biggest supporters after the fact."
In other words, Brauchler doesn't regret seeking the death penalty for Holmes. He regrets that it didn't happen.