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After courtroom 201 shut down and the reporters left, after the questions had been asked of witnesses and the tears shed, George Brauchler would return to his home and attempt to make sense of what seemed to be a senseless situation. He’d kiss his wife. He’d eat dinner with his family. He’d read with his four children and help put them to bed. With the house finally quiet, he’d step into the closet just off his bedroom. He’d turn on the overhead light and close the door.
The files and the photos were there, atop a small desk he’d bought at IKEA and put together himself. There, each night, were the horrors from the movie theater, which would await him in court the next morning. Inside his six-by-four-foot closet, the lead prosecutor of one of the nation’s deadliest shooting cases studied the victims, the destruction, the man who had wrought it all. When Brauchler was elected district attorney, 109 days had passed since the shooting at the Century Aurora theater, where 12 people were killed and another 70 were injured on July 20, 2012. Now, in the most important ways, each one of them belonged to him.
He’d promised those victims there would be justice. And it would be delivered his way—that much was always clear. He’d also do his best for his family, to make their lives as normal as possible even when the case went to trial. He didn’t want his children to grow up in a house where punishment and death were dinnertime conversations. When he was with his kids, when he watched them sleep safely in their beds at night, it became impossible not to think of the day that had passed, of what he’d seen and heard. It was also impossible not to think about the questions he knew would eventually come.
His 12-year-old daughter was the first to ask. She was curious about why her father wanted to see another person die. Brauchler sat his daughter down. “Some people are so bad that they have to be treated differently than other people who do something bad,” he told her. It was a brief synopsis of his position. Simple, he thought. Good enough, at least for now.
Except, of course, it wasn’t. Brauchler’s wife, Marcia, soon got a call from their seven-year-old’s first-grade teacher. Their son had gone to school and explained the death penalty to a friend.
A week after a jury could not reach a consensus to sentence James Holmes to death this past August, Brauchler settles in at a barbecue joint down the road from the courthouse and performs a postmortem on his summer. As he waits for his plate of ribs and fried pickles, he talks through the reams of evidence, the thrust and parry of the prosecution and defense, and the criticism he’d endured since deciding to seek death for one of Colorado’s worst mass murderers.
At that moment, Holmes is not far from his thoughts. “That guy is a coward,” the district attorney says, using the same deliberately imprecise identifier he deployed during the 15-week trial. “He used total darkness, tear gas; he had people trapped behind rows of seats. There’s surprise and deception.” In court, Brauchler says he made a point to look directly at the defendant. “I wanted to show him that there wasn’t fear, that I could look him right in the eye,” he says. “He disgusted me. You put on armor to go shoot innocent people? You take a Vicodin so you won’t feel pain when the police throw you to the ground? I thought, You wuss. You’re a scared little man.”
While Brauchler had sought to frame the Aurora shooting case as a justice-seeking endeavor for the victims, their families, and the state of Colorado, he’d also opened himself to critics who’d spent much of the past two years pounding away at Brauchler’s perceived intentions. In 2013, after publicly blasting Governor John Hickenlooper for extending a temporary reprieve to convicted killer Nathan Dunlap, who was sentenced to death in 1996 for the murder of four people, Brauchler had become an overnight name within the state Republican party. He was the youngish, brazenly unapologetic foil to the state’s Democrats.
Brauchler now finds himself in a peculiar position. A devout Catholic, the 46-year-old is the most visible defender of Colorado’s contentious death penalty law. He wrote an editorial in the Denver Post and appeared on radio shows and in public forums to champion his position. This past summer, Brauchler’s face was beamed into homes and offices around the world. Before the trial, the man who prayed every night for God’s wisdom and forgiveness found himself doing his best to persuade others that to achieve justice, a human being should die.
His stance, he admits, is contradictory to much of his church’s teachings on the issue. “But as a Catholic, if I’m going to subjugate my obligation in this case, then I shouldn’t be a district attorney in a state that has the death penalty as a possibility,” says Brauchler, whose judicial district encompasses moderate Arapahoe County but also includes heavily conservative Douglas, Elbert, and Lincoln counties (which he carried by a significant margin in his 2012 election win). “I can promise you that I didn’t immediately make up my mind on the death penalty.” To support his point, Brauchler says that in 2013, after spending months studying the shooting, he went to St. Mark Catholic Church in Highlands Ranch. After Mass one Sunday, Brauchler waited until the parishioners left, then introduced himself to one of the priests. “I said, ‘I’ve got this case.’?” Brauchler explained his situation. “The priest told me the teaching of the church was that the death penalty was wrong, that every soul needed the maximum amount of time to be saved,” Brauchler says. “Then I go through a thumbnail sketch of the facts with him.” A few moments of silence passed between the two men. The priest put a hand on Brauchler’s shoulder. “He said, ‘You almost have me convinced. Still….’?” Brauchler doesn’t finish the sentence. Shortly after his meeting with the priest, he contacted the shooting victims’ families. They needed to prepare for a death penalty case.
The law is a unique and ever-changing thing. A win on its own is not always a win; a loss isn’t always a loss. That’s the purgatory in which Brauchler now finds himself. He got a jury to convict Holmes on 24 counts of first-degree murder and 140 counts of attempted first-degree murder, plus other charges. Yet he failed to achieve what he’d considered the ultimate justice. You could almost feel the collective sigh across the state when the first guilty verdict, for the murder of Jonathan Blunk, was read aloud. So, too, there was a gasp—of shock? Anger? Relief?—when the same jury didn’t sentence Holmes to die. At that moment, the state’s death penalty, and Brauchler’s future, seemed to be on less-than-solid ground.
Brauchler says he’s heard the criticisms: that seeking the death penalty was a waste of taxpayer money (the cost for the prosecution’s side of the trial was an estimated $1.4 million, according to the 18th Judicial District); that it was more about personal politics than about what was right; that the defendant is mentally ill and was unfit for the death penalty. On Twitter, Jordan Ghawi, whose sister, Jessica Redfield Ghawi, was murdered in the theater, wrote: “Is there anyway that we can get to foot the cost of this trial?”
Immediately after the verdict was read, Brauchler felt the kind of ache that comes only when you’ve put your entire self into something and failed. “I could hear the moaning behind me, the whimpering from the families,” he says. The memory is fresh in his mind. His eyes well up.
“I will never forget that I put us all on this path. I’d totally, absolutely disappointed every one of them.”
To understand Brauchler’s position on the death penalty, you first have to know a little about one of the cases that preceded the Aurora theater trial.
The details of Edward Montour Jr.’s crime are straightforward. In 2002, he was serving a life sentence for the 1998 murder of his 11-week-old daughter when he beat 23-year-old correctional officer Eric Autobee to death at the Limon Correctional Facility. After killing Autobee in the prison kitchen with an industrial-size ladle, Montour found another guard and allegedly said, “I just put Autobee down…. Do you want to handcuff me now or later?” He then poured himself a glass of Pibb Xtra.
Montour—who represented himself in court—pleaded guilty to first-degree murder in 2003, and a judge sentenced him to death. Four years later, things began to get complicated. In 2007, the Colorado Supreme Court overturned Montour’s sentence; in essence, the court ruled that only a jury could impose a death sentence on a defendant. The case bounced around various courts for the next several years before a district court judge in Douglas County allowed Montour to withdraw his 2003 guilty plea. In 2013, the case became Brauchler’s problem. By then, the most controversial part of the case wasn’t Montour.
Eric Autobee’s father, Bob, was a former correctional officer himself. After his son’s murder, Bob spent most of his days drinking and abusing prescription drugs. He sought counseling to repair a broken marriage and took anger-management classes. Nothing seemed to help. Bob, who supported death for his son’s killer during the first trial, was now headed toward his own quick end. When Jehovah’s Witnesses showed up at his doorstep in 2012, Bob was on forced leave from his job as a manager for a wastewater treatment plant. He invited the men back. For the next six months, they arrived at Bob’s place almost every week and read the Bible with him. Bob began to rediscover his Catholic faith. He went to Sunday Mass. He stopped using drugs and alcohol and reconciled with his family. He also concluded that any killing was a grave sin. He attended rallies and debates; he spoke against what he’d come to see as the inhumanity of state-sponsored death. Eventually, Bob met Montour and forgave him.
A couple of months after taking office, Brauchler and his prosecutorial team drove to Bob’s house in Pueblo for a face-to-face meeting. “I think Bob had been sucked into the political side of this,” Brauchler says now. “But I wanted to hear his thoughts.” From the outset, though, both men were unwavering. If he abandoned death in Montour’s case, Brauchler argued, inmates without hope of parole could declare open season on the state’s prison guards. As hard as it might be to hear, the case this time wasn’t so much about Eric as it was about sending a message to would-be attackers. Bob was equally defiant. He argued that Montour’s death sentence in 2003 didn’t give his family relief. He said a plea agreement that included life in prison was the only way to spare his family more grief. And the death penalty, Bob told Brauchler, was morally wrong. If the DA’s office proceeded, Bob promised he’d protest outside the courthouse.
“We did not agree on what justice was in this case,” Brauchler says now. “But I did leave with a greater respect for Bob’s faith and an understanding of his feelings.”
Says Bob: “George has skills as an attorney, but he’s what’s wrong with the moral fiber of this country. He was going to pursue the death penalty at all costs, regardless of how my family felt about it. There was no honor in what he was doing.”
During jury selection in early 2014, Bob did exactly what he said he’d do: He arrived at the courthouse with a blown-up photo of his son and poster boards that were harshly critical of Brauchler and his position. “My son wouldn’t want the death penalty,” he told potential jurors as they waited in the cold. In turn, Brauchler’s team filed a motion with the court that would have prevented Bob from saying the same thing during victim-impact testimony.
It never got that far. Noted defense attorney David Lane was already working to overturn Montour’s initial conviction—for the beating death of his infant daughter. The girl’s fatal injuries, Lane was prepared to argue, likely were caused by an undiagnosed bone disease. He had already lined up experts to testify. Lane also was ready to argue that Montour had a mental illness that was allowed to “flourish” behind bars. The anguish from a wrongful conviction for his child’s death, coupled with paranoia that festered in prison, made Montour crack.
Brauchler attempted to strike many of the defense’s expert witnesses, and when that failed, he asked the judge to delay the trial. He cited the need to find experts to refute Montour’s defense, but a judge rejected the motion. Just after opening statements, saying his office was “hamstrung,” Brauchler offered a plea deal of life without parole. Montour accepted. “I had to get as much justice out of this situation as I could,” Brauchler says.
Brauchler is as impenitent about Montour’s prosecution as he is about Holmes’ case. “I went with what I thought was the right thing to do, and that was death,” he says. “I’ve heard all this stuff saying Bob was the one who made the plea happen, that we gave in to him. This had nothing to do with Bob.”
On a late morning a few days before the end of the Aurora trial, Bob sat across from the Arapahoe County Justice Center in a camping chair under a large umbrella. He’d been praying the rosary since he arrived, his eyes closed, beads clutched in one hand, the other hand pressed against his head. Traffic passed a few feet away. A gold crucifix dangled from his necklace.
It had been more than a year since his son’s case was finally resolved, but Bob was still protesting the death penalty—and George Brauchler. “He’s like a hit man,” Bob says. “George is trying to take people’s lives only to further his career. He’s willing to get to the top by stepping over bodies. He says he’s doing it for good, but there has to be a better alternative to death. If the taking of life is the problem, then how can the taking of life be the solution?”
Bob retraced the moments that brought him here, to this road near the courthouse. How he’d tried to sabotage everything good in his life in the years after his son’s murder. How a second death penalty trial might have destroyed him once more. Tears began to run from behind his glasses. “I cried every day for 10 years over the loss of my son and the goddamn thing they call justice,” Bob said. “Then I remembered my son would always tell me, ‘Pa, get over it.’ It dawned on me that I needed to forgive. And I did.” His forgiveness even extends to the man who prosecuted his son’s killer. Still, he says, “I have faith in God more than I have faith in George Brauchler.”
Brauchler’s mother’s license to practice law hangs on a wall in his Centennial office, next to his own diplomas and his officer commission from the U.S. Army. Brauchler collects things that have broader meanings to his existence, moments that had a defining impact on how he got to where he is today: Family photographs, a newspaper story written about him just before he was deployed to Iraq in 2011 as a judge advocate general.
Brauchler was the first of three children born into a strong Republican household. George Sr. was a longtime banker and former federal employee who served two years in the Army, and Reta Brauchler was a five-foot-two-inch civil rights advocate and attorney. When the family moved from Staten Island to Jefferson County in 1971, Brauchler was two years old and his mother was reconsidering the rest of her life. A former office clerk with a high school diploma, she’d wanted better for herself. “She was what you’d probably consider an atypical mother for the time,” Brauchler says. “She wanted to raise her kids, but she also wanted a full-time job. She was never satisfied with where she was.” Soon after arriving in Colorado, Reta enrolled in night classes at the Community College of Denver. She finished her associate’s degree in 1975 then graduated from Metropolitan State College in 1977. She worked as a civil rights advocate at the state’s Department of Health, Education, and Welfare and took on discrimination cases. By 1980, she had a master’s degree in public administration from the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley and was promoted to branch chief in the state’s Office for Civil Rights.
When Brauchler was 13, his mother began law school at the University of Denver. “It was not uncommon for me to wander downstairs in the early morning hours and find Mom asleep on the floor of the living room, surrounded by legal pads, pens, and the biggest school books I had ever seen,” he wrote of his mother years later. “I would cover Mom up with an afghan, and then go back upstairs.” Brauchler’s mother passed the bar after she graduated from DU in 1987, though she didn’t quit her job in the OCR. The HIV/AIDS epidemic was in the midst of peak paranoia, and Brauchler’s mother often found herself meeting with men who were living with AIDS and facing discrimination. Many had parents who’d disowned them. “Reta was an advocate,” George Sr. says today. “She knew she wasn’t here just for herself.” If there was a wrong in the world, she wanted to correct it. She spent nights and weekends doing pro bono work, writing wills for men who’d soon be gone. Brauchler, then in his late teens, often talked to his mother about her work. “How could that not have impacted him, when he sees his mother doing this?” George Sr. says. “She was a huge figure for such a small woman.”
At first, Brauchler didn’t want to be an attorney. “I wanted to drive tanks,” he says. He attended Bear Creek High School in Lakewood, where he was captain of the swim team and the class speaker at his graduation in 1988. He hoped to attend a United States service academy, but he was rejected from the Military Academy and the Air Force Academy—“a real down moment in my life.” Brauchler enrolled at the University of Colorado Boulder, where he planned to major in aerospace engineering on an ROTC scholarship. At the end of his first semester in 1988, Brauchler and his fellow engineering classmates took a 10-question true-or-false test. “I managed one right answer,” he says. “I thought that must be a message. I needed to get out.” He changed his major that spring, and in 1992, Brauchler graduated with a degree in political science and economics and planned to join the military.
Brauchler met with senior ROTC officials, and they suggested he go to law school instead of fight. Brauchler got in touch with his mother. “She couldn’t have been more excited,” he says. “She thought the law was the way to change things.”
While he was working his way through law school at CU, Brauchler landed an internship with the 1st Judicial District in Jefferson County. Although he was helping mostly on low-level cases such as DUIs and simple assaults, the job was invigorating for someone who’d grown up in a house where the concept of right versus wrong was so apparent. “Everything is either black or white for George,” says someone who knows him well. “There is no gray in his world.” Says Brauchler: “There is justice and injustice, and the internship fed into that. I could go to work and immediately help society.”
Brauchler earned his law degree in 1995 and took a job as a deputy district attorney in the 1st Judicial District. While in law school, he had applied to be a legal adviser to the Army. By the time he was accepted for military service, he was enjoying his work in the DA’s office and didn’t want to leave if the job wasn’t exactly what he wanted. (The Army allowed him to defer his service.) “Even then, you could see he had a gift for speaking, for thinking, for reacting to complex situations,” says Dan Deasy, Brauchler’s close friend and former colleague. “There’s no book that says you’ve got it or you don’t; you just know. George has always had it.”
Almost a year after Brauchler accepted the job in the DA’s office, his mother was diagnosed with brain cancer. By February 1998, Reta Brauchler was dead.
“Reta fought for the underdog,” Brauchler wrote of his mother. “She believed it was her obligation to help those around her.” Seventeen years after her death, Brauchler has come to see the events that led him to become a prosecutor as almost prewritten, as evidence of a greater power working in his life. “Being home gave me those last months with Mom,” he says. “I have to be very thankful for that. You know, she was dying, but she worked almost right up to her last day.”
The idea that the death penalty could become a major political issue in next fall’s elections in Colorado seems unlikely. A Quinnipiac University poll from this past summer shows that 67 percent of the state’s voters think the death penalty should not be abolished. Yet, according to a poll commissioned by anti–capital punishment group Better Priorities Initiative, 69 percent of voters are at least somewhat likely to support a candidate who doesn’t share their position on the death penalty.
When Brauchler first began to make big news himself as a critic of Hickenlooper’s handling of the Dunlap case, he didn’t imagine the frenzy it would cause within his own party. He soon found himself fielding calls from top state Republicans asking him to get into the 2014 gubernatorial race. “It was very flattering,” Brauchler says. At a Lincoln Club of Colorado meeting that July, he again pressed Hickenlooper on Dunlap, accusing the governor of being “the guardian angel of the worst mass murderer in recent Colorado history. Think about it: the person this next election matters most to is a mass murderer sitting in a prison cell.”
But Brauchler eventually announced he wouldn’t run for the state’s top job. Challenging Hickenlooper so soon after he’d been elected district attorney—and with the Aurora case unresolved—wasn’t appropriate, he says now. “Plus,” Brauchler adds, “I like going home to my family at night.” Close friends intimate he doesn’t particularly like running for office, that his first campaign—a bruising 2008 primary loss in the 18th Judicial District two years after moving into private practice—soured him. “Some people say, ‘I need to run for state treasurer so I can run for governor.’ They climb the political ladder, but that’s not how George thinks,” says Dustin Zvonek, who ran Brauchler’s successful 2012 campaign. “George wanted to run for district attorney because he likes being a prosecutor. The politics of ’08, he didn’t like. It turned him off. At first, everybody’s your best friend; they’ll support you. Then it’s kinda, maybe. That surprised George.” In the 2008 primary, Brauchler ran as a political outsider but lost to Republican incumbent Carol Chambers, whose husband, Nathan Chambers, happened to be in charge of the Arapahoe County GOP. “The long knives came out,” Brauchler says. “They wanted to rub me into the ground.”
After taking a leave from private practice and serving a yearlong Army Reserve tour in Iraq, Brauchler returned in late 2011 and told friends he wanted to run again. He defeated one of Chambers’ top assistants in the 2012 primary (Chambers was term-limited) then was elected later that fall. While Chambers opened her office to Brauchler as part of the executive transfer, there was no reconciliation between the two Republicans. “I haven’t spoken to her since,” Brauchler says. “We’re never going to hug each other.” (A representative for Chambers did not return multiple calls seeking comment.)
As the new DA, Brauchler entered a judicial district where the specter of death has hovered for decades. First, there was Dunlap’s murder of four people at a Chuck E. Cheese’s restaurant; then, the 2005 killing of a witness—and his fiancée—who was due to testify at a murder trial; and, finally, the Aurora theater shooting. Only three men are on death row in Colorado today, and all were prosecuted in the 18th Judicial District. Given this history, it isn’t difficult to imagine why Brauchler leaned toward death in the Aurora case. While many victims’ families supported the death penalty, there were holdouts—among them, Sandy Phillips, Jessica Redfield Ghawi’s mother.
In early 2013, Holmes’ public defenders offered Brauchler a guilty plea from their client in return for life in prison. The possible deal struck Phillips and her husband, Lonnie, as the best way to end the case, and, she says, “allow us to get on with our lives the best we could.” Brauchler says he considered the plea but asked Holmes’ attorneys for their client’s mental health records and the personal notebook he kept. Brauchler also wanted a prosecution psychiatrist to interview Holmes. “I needed an idea of what we were dealing with,” he says. The defense, Brauchler says, denied the request, which led, in part, to his decision to pursue the death penalty. (Holmes’ team—which has yet to speak about the case’s resolution—has disputed Brauchler’s recollection of the events but has declined to elaborate.)
Once Brauchler decided to pursue the death penalty, he remained steadfast. In an explanation to victims and their families, Brauchler reminded them that he wasn’t just their representative; he was representing the entire state of Colorado. For that reason, he told them, the severity of the crime deserved the ultimate punishment. “You realize you’re not in this alone. There are 11 other families,” Phillips says. “My heart broke for those people. They really needed the death penalty, for some reason. I don’t understand why, but I certainly have empathy for them.”
On the day when the jury rejected the death penalty for Holmes, Phillips and her husband appeared with Brauchler outside the courthouse in a show of support. The trial, she admitted later, helped her understand what happened the night of her daughter’s death. “If George would have taken the deal the defense offered, we would never have known about [Holmes’] notebook,” Phillips says. “We would have never known about his therapy. My husband and I would never have known where our daughter sat in that theater. We wouldn’t have had any of the information that was disclosed during the trial. We’re grateful for that.”
At his office this fall, before announcing he’d seek re-election as district attorney and forego a chance at the U.S. Senate, Brauchler already seemed to have made up his mind about his future—at least in the short term. Running for statewide office so soon after the trial would put the Aurora case front and center, which he knew would open him up to more criticism that he was using Holmes’ conviction for political purposes. The connection troubled Brauchler. “I’m sensitive to the linkage,” he says. “I care what my neighbors think. I care what Joe Lunchpail thinks.”
For her part, Phillips says Brauchler should be proud of his role in the case, no matter how controversial it might become. “George has the same moniker as all of us now,” she says of herself and the other victims’ families. “He has to find a way to embrace that and let it be part of him. It can be a big part or a small part. It’s up to him.”
Over his 20-year legal career, which has involved countless tragedies, no death has troubled Brauchler more than that of Veronica Moser-Sullivan. She was the six-year-old whose mother, Ashley Moser, had taken her daughter to the theater because she mistakenly thought The Dark Knight Rises was a family-friendly film. In the years following the shooting, Brauchler spent many hours with Moser. She’d suffered a miscarriage as a result of the shooting’s trauma. One bullet lodged in her spinal cord and paralyzed her from the waist down.
Brauchler spoke to dozens of victims’ families. He held too many hands to remember. During Brauchler’s meetings with Moser, her voice was always a dull monotone. When the two talked, he says, it was as if she were looking through him, into a far darker place than Brauchler wanted to imagine. “There’s a blue light behind people’s eyes that’s supposed to show they’re living life,” he says. “She was empty. Whatever light she had just disappeared. She was lost.”
During the trial, Veronica’s autopsy photo was shown to the jury. Brauchler put his hands to his face, peeked through his fingers. “I could feel myself going,” he says. “I was like, Fuck me. I have a five-year-old at home. I’m standing there thinking, I’ve got to keep it together. For God’s sake, be strong about this.”
At home that night, he didn’t discuss Veronica. He didn’t talk about Tom Sullivan, whose son, Alex, was killed. Sullivan confessed to Brauchler that he had since watched movies in theater nine, in the same area where his son was shot. “What kind of hell are you in to get to that place?” Brauchler asks. “I have no idea how deep that pit is. I’ve seen it. I’ve walked up to it. But, really, I don’t know.”
At night, Brauchler would sit at the desk inside his closet. When he thought about Veronica being shot in that theater, he thought about his own children being shot in that theater. He put himself there, imagined what it would be like to lose one of his own. He couldn’t conceive being the parent who got the sympathetic stares, to be one of those people on the witness stand explaining the depth of their pain. “When I picture someone hurting one of my kids, I want to seek revenge on them,” he says. “That’s what I think. I don’t know what I’m capable of—other than I think I’m capable of revenge.”
George Brauchler still goes to the movies with his family, but it’s different now. “I’ve got a .40-caliber Glock,” he says as he sits in his office this past summer. At the movies now, he looks for the exits.
But there’s a question that’s difficult to answer, one that strikes to the core of how he thinks of himself as a husband, as a father, as an administrator of justice: Does he have it in him to stop a massacre?
“Jesus,” Brauchler says. “How can you know how you’ll react?”
What would he do? Would he run? Would he jump atop his children to protect them? Would he pull out his Glock? If he did, could he squeeze the trigger?
“I don’t know what I’d do,” he says.
Then: “I’m a good shot.”
Then, finally: “I’m willing. No doubt. I am willing.”