Seeking Death Penalty in Aurora Shootings Is a Mistake

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Robin Barton

On July 20, 2012, James Holmes entered a packed movie theatre in Aurora, CO during a midnight showing of “The Dark Knight Rises.” Fully armed, Holmes arbitrarily fired at the crowd. When he was done, 12 people were dead and 58 were injured.

The police arrested Holmes on the scene, still armed and dressed in his Joker costume. Thus, the fact Holmes committed the shootings isn’t seriously in doubt. Realistically, the only possible defense available to him is a so-called insanity defense.

So on March 27, 2013, Holmes’ defense team told the court and prosecutors that he’d be willing to plead guilty in exchange for spending the rest of his life in prison with no opportunity for parole.

The likely motivation for this offer? Avoiding the death penalty.

But George Brauchler, the Arapahoe County District Attorney, rejected the offer, announcing instead that his office intends to go to trial specifically to seek the death penalty for Holmes.

I think this decision by the prosecution is misguided and just plain wrong.

Brauchler claims that his office reached out to more than 800 relatives of victims, survivors and their families in making this decision. In this case, he said, “Justice is death.”

Full disclosure: I don’t support the death penalty. I think its use is largely motivated by revenge. And the survivors of Holmes’ rampage and the families of the victims may understandably want revenge in the form of his execution, although reports indicate that this group isn’t unanimously behind the prosecution’s decision.

But a prosecutor doesn’t represent only the interests of the immediate victims of a crime. There’s a reason the case is titled “The People of the State of Colorado v. James Holmes“—not Victor Victim et al. v. Holmes.

Prosecutors are supposed to represent the interests of the general public.

Yes, the wishes of the victims of a crime (or their families) should certainly be considered when deciding an appropriate resolution to a case. But their wishes shouldn’t be determinative.

In this case, I believe that a guilty plea is in the public’s best interests.

A trial is likely to be long, very costly and emotionally difficult for the survivors [tough on survivors themselves, not their families] and families of the victims. Even if the prosecution secures a conviction and death penalty sentence, the defense will probably pursue all available appeals—meaning it will be years before the case reaches a final resolution and the survivors and families get closure.

Meanwhile, all the money, time and other resources devoted to the Holmes case could be going toward prosecuting other cases.

In addition, Colorado has executed exactly one person since 1976. So if the prosecution’s ultimate goal is Holmes’ execution, the odds aren’t good that it will ever actually happen.

So what’s the point?

The Holmes case is very similar to the Jan. 8, 2011 shootings at a Tucson strip mall by Jared Loughner. Six people died and 12 were injured, including former Rep. Gabrielle Gifford.

There was no doubt Loughner committed the shootings, although his mental state was an issue. However, Loughner pleaded guilty and, on Nov. 8, 2012, was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

The Loughner case was resolved in less than two years and now the families of the victims and survivors can begin to move on with their lives.

I think the families and survivors of Holmes’ shooting spree deserve the same.

Robin L. Barton, a legal journalist based in Brooklyn, NY, is a former assistant district attorney in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office and a regular blogger for The Crime Report. She welcomes readers’ comments.

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