Colo. shooting case shifts focus to race for DA, death penalty

DENVER — Until recently, the race for district attorney in Colorado’s 18th Judicial District wasn’t on anyone’s list of must-watch 2012 political faceoffs. Then a gunman killed 12 people and wounded 58 at the Century 16 theater in Aurora.

Suddenly, the contest isn’t just about who will replace District Attorney Carol Chambers: It’s about who will lead the prosecution of James Holmes, the only suspect in one of the worst mass shootings in U.S. history.

Ms. Chambers is term-limited after serving nearly eight years as district attorney. She is expected to file charges Monday against Mr. Holmes in Arapahoe County District Court, but legal analysts agree that she will have left office well before the case goes to trial.

“She will not be running the prosecution,” said Sam Kamin, director of the Constitutional Rights & Remedies Program at the University of Denver law school. “This case is going to take months and months. It’s not going to be resolved anytime soon.”

The two candidates vying to succeed Ms. Chambers in the Nov. 6 election are Republican George Brauchler and Democrat Ethan Feldman. Both have extensive prosecutorial experience and impressive legal resumes.

Both also declined to speak specifically about the Aurora theater case, saying it would be inappropriate to comment with Ms. Chambers still in charge of the prosecution.

“The matter should be discussed in court, not by candidates,” Mr. Feldman wrote in an email. “The current DA is in charge of the case and candidates should defer to her so long as she is in office.”

Ms. Chambers is expected to file first-degree murder charges against the suspect Monday, and could add other charges, such as attempted murder and aggravated assault. The biggest question surrounding the case centers on whether the prosecution will seek the death penalty.

If it were Ms. Chambers‘ call, few doubt that she would press for a death sentence. There are three people on Colorado’s death row, and two of them were put there by the Republican Ms. Chambers.

“She’s by far the most aggressive prosecutor in seeking the death penalty in our state,” Mr. Kamin said. “Every indication is that she would. I heard one prosecutor say, ‘If you don’t seek the death penalty in this case, you might as well take it off the books.’”

Mr. Brauchler, 42, has said on the campaign trail that he supports the death penalty “without hesitation.” A former special assistant U.S. attorney and chief prosecutor for the Northern District of Iraq, Mr. Brauchler was involved with prosecutions related to the 1999 Columbine High School shooting as a Jefferson County deputy district attorney.

Mr. Feldman, 64, spent 20 years as a judge in the 18th Judicial District, including two terms as presiding judge. Before being named to the bench, he was chief deputy district attorney to District Attorney Robert Gallagher.

“The Colorado Legislature has set forth specific criteria about when a jury should be asked to impose a death penalty,” Mr. Feldman said in a statement. “I will follow my oath to follow the law. There are cases where it is appropriate to ask a jury to impose a death penalty, but I am not referring to any specific cases.”

The 18th Judicial District includes four counties: Arapahoe, Douglas, Elbert and Lincoln. Republicans have held the district attorney’s slot since at least 1968, when Mr. Gallagher first was elected, although he recently crossed party lines to endorse his former deputy, Mr. Feldman.

Ms. Chambers said last week that she would talk to the victims and their families before making a decision on sentencing. That’s if she is still in office: Prosecutors have 60 days after the arraignment, which has not been scheduled, to decide whether to seek a death sentence.

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