AURORA | Just days before the election, some families of those killed in the 2012 Aurora theater shooting are debating the character of GOP attorney general candidate George Brauchler, who led the prosecution of gunman James Holmes as the 18th Judicial District Attorney.
Brauchler is vying for Colorado AG in a messy battle against Democrat Phil Weiser.
Lonnie and Sandy Phillips, parents of theater shooting victim Jessica Ghawi, ardently criticized Brauchler this week in a letter to The Sentinel, condemning Brauchler for politicizing the trial for publicity to climb to a higher office.
Their letter was followed by a defense from Theresa Hoover, mother of another Aurora theater shooting victim, AJ Boik.
The letters amount to the first time that hard questions over Brauchler’s performance in the theater shooting trial have surfaced in his campaign for attorney general.
“It increasingly appeared as if his conduct during the trial was not about pursuing justice but about his political aspirations,” the Phillips wrote in their letter, published this week.
They criticized Brauchler’s decision not to accept a plea agreement and instead pursue the death penalty against James Holmes. Critics of Brauchler’s decision pointed out that Holmes was clearly mentally ill and would eventually escape the death penalty because if it. The decision opened up a lengthy and graphic trial that the Phillips said was painful to go through, even though they supported Brauchler’s decision at the time.
Brauchler lost the death penalty case. Holmes was sentenced to life without parole plus more than 3,000 years in prison.
The Phillips believe that Brauchler intentionally took the case to trial to raise his public profile, thereby keeping himself in front of cameras in preparation for a bigger role in state politics.
“He knows exactly what he’s doing, and he’s very shrewd,” Sandy Phillips said this week.
Sandy pointed to Brauchler’s short stint in the race for governor last year.
“After the (theater shooting) trial, when he was running for Governor — no surprise — we used to tease him that if he ran for office he should run as a moderate Democrat, and we would vote for him,” Sandy said.
Sandy and her husband, Lonnie, are now traveling across the country to work with gun control organizations and Democratic campaigns for office and help survivors of gun violence, she said.
For them, Brauchler is too “right-wing” on gun issues. He does not support the high-capacity magazine ban, but he did support a bill this year that would have empowered law enforcement to temporarily seize guns from dangerous, unstable people.
Another mother of a victim of the Aurora theater shooting has the opposite view.
Hoover lost her son AJ in the theater shooting. She said she read the Phillips’ letter criticizing Brauchler and was compelled to come to his defense.
“When this whole mess started, he was the same man as when it ended,” Hoover said. “(Brauchler) did a damn fine job. An amazing job.”
Hoover said she appreciated the sensitivity Brauchler brought in his interactions with her and other families of the victims. She said that she was unsure if she wanted Holmes to receive the death penalty. Regardless, Brauchler listened and took her opinions seriously, and today she considers him to be family.
“That’s a huge thing to go through without having a relationship with them,” Hoover said.
This summer, Hoover agreed to vouch for Brauchler in a campaign video advertisement.
Hoover said the Phillips’ letter was part of their political advocacy for gun control, which she supports, but that they were using Brauchler as a “sacrificial lamb” to that end.
However, her disagreement stopped there.
“Their choice is their choice, and I respect them having an agenda.” Hoover said. “I love Sandy and Lonnie and appreciate what they have been through. I went through the same thing.”
For his part, Brauchler said the Phillips’ letter was “disappointing,” but he didn’t criticize them for how they felt.
“(The theater shooting) was the most challenging, soul-sucking professional endeavor I’ve ever been through, and that’s just a fraction of what they went through,” Brauchler said.