The district attorney opens up about the emotional toll of the case
For prosecutors, there are some cases that always stick with them, shaping their careers and their lives. Those cases are often gruesome and tragic, reverberating in their minds for the rest of their lives.
For George Brauchler, the case is that of James Holmes, the man who opened fire in a crowded movie theater during a 2012 showing of The Dark Knight Rises.
Brauchler was given the monumental task of prosecuting Holmes, a process that took years of preparation and months of trial. Talking with PEOPLE in a candid interview, Brauchler reflects on the high-profile trial.
“This case will always stick with me,” he says. “It’s the most disturbing and significant case that I have prosecuted. I spent time with the victims, heard their stories and tried to get justice for them. There was a human toll to Mr. Holmes’ actions, and while we couldn’t make it right, we could get justice. That’s what I was there for.”
“I’m human,” continues Brauchler. “My youngest child is 5 years old, and the youngest victim of [the shooting] was 6. So it’s impossible not to think of it in that way. Every victim was someone’s loved one.”
For Brauchler, one moment from the trial sticks out in his mind.
He had to cross-examine Ashley Moser, who suffered immeasurable loss in the shooting. She was pregnant when she took her daughter, Veronica Moser Sullivan, to the theater. The shooting not only claimed her daughter, but a bullet paralyzed her. She lost the baby.
“Ashley Moser entered the theater as a healthy, pregnant mom,” says Brauchler. “She left the theater as none of those things. And I had to talk to her on the stand about it.”
“I asked a ridiculous question: ‘How has the shooting affected you?’ ” he continues. “It was such a dumb question, but I needed an answer. And she started to break down. She said, ‘I’m lost. I don’t know who I am anymore. I’m not a mom anymore.’ That hit me hard.”
“Just her alone as a victim was traumatic,” Brauchler says, “but there were 11 other people killed and 70 more injured. The scope of the killing was incredible.”
Brauchler is quick to say that the killing wasn’t “random” in the strictest sense of the word. “The victims were random; he didn’t know them, he didn’t want to kill those particular people. But the shooting wasn’t random,” he says. “He chose that theater. He researched it. He purchased steel penetrating rounds, because he knew that people would hide behind the seats. He was intentional about what he did.”
Holmes’ attorneys had argued that he was mentally ill at the time of the shooting.
“He made a conscious, deliberate decision to do wrong,” he says, his voice rising slightly. “He knew it was wrong. He was writing that in his journal. He said it was evil and he hated mankind. He knew he was murdering human beings, and he wanted to do it because he wanted to be evil.”
As he prosecuted the case, Brauchler says he made a conscious decision not to focus on the societal issues that others were talking about.
“Of course there are issues of weapons and mental health,” he says. “But that wasn’t my job. My job was to prosecute the case and get justice. I was there to make sure that he paid for his crime – for the pain that he had caused.
“Is he mentally ill? I think everyone agrees that he has some mental illness,” he continues. “But did it impact him so that he should be held to a lesser standard? No. He knew what he was doing was wrong, evil even. He did it anyway. And he needed to pay for it.”
Ultimately, the jury sentenced Holmes to life in prison. According to Brauchler, there was one holdout who was concerned about Holmes’ mental health.
So does Brauchler think that justice was served?
“That’s a tough question,” he says. “On a personal level, I believe that he deserves to die for what he did, and that the death penalty would be an appropriate outcome. But this was a conscientious jury. And I defend that our system worked and he got a fair trial. He got his due process.”
And how has the trial affected Brauchler as a man?
“It has changed me in many ways,” he says. “I look at life as even more fragile now, and that’s even after I was deployed to Iraq. One person with their own agenda can end lives. So that reminds me how precious life really is.”
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