STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
This next story explores just what punishment equals justice for an atrocity. The man accused of shooting up a theater in Aurora, Colo., will face a jury. The attack killed a dozen people. The defendant has offered a guilty plea in exchange for life in prison. It's a bid to avoid the death penalty. The district attorney said no. That has raised questions about the DA's motives. This is a legal question but also a political one. Here's Colorado Public Radio's Ben Markus.
BEN MARKUS, BYLINE: Two years ago, Arapahoe County District Attorney George Brauchler stepped to the podium in court. To his left sat James Holmes, the perpetrator of one of the worst mass shootings in American history. Brauchler told the judge he would pursue capital punishment - that in this case, quote, "justice is death." To his detractors, that decision is one born more of ambition than justice.
DAN RECHT: And this seemingly is well calculated to help his political career.
MARKUS: That's Dan Recht, a criminal defense attorney and former public defender. He says Brauchler, a Republican, could've accepted a plea of guilty, ending the trial, saving millions of dollars and a lot of heartache. But...
RECHT: This will elevate his profile, his name recognition, his status as a conservative politician and increase the likelihood that he can win the conservative vote in Colorado when he runs for higher office.
MARKUS: Brauchler wouldn't grant an interview, citing a gag order from the court regarding pretrial publicity. But his supporters say if any case cried out for the ultimate punishment, it's this one. There's no doubt that Brauchler's fledgling political career is closely tied to the death penalty. When Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper granted a temporary stay of execution in a different case, Brauchler passionately rebuked it.
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LIEUTENANT COLONEL GEORGE BRAUCHLER: Yeah, you hear frustration and anger in my voice because those victims that have waited patiently for justice for 20 years will now wait for years more.
MARKUS: Suddenly, Brauchler was talked about as a challenger for Hickenlooper in 2014. But he eventually declined to run. Ryan Call is the former chairman of the state Republican Party.
RYAN CALL: And frankly, I admire greatly his willingness to do the job he was hired to do and fulfill his commitment to the voters who elected him to be their district attorney.
MARKUS: Brauchler's good friend and former colleague Dan Deasy says Brauchler is pursuing this case and this punishment out of a genuine sense of duty.
REPRESENTATIVE DAN DEASY: He can't walk away from that for the - what people perceive to be his own aspirations. I mean, he wanted to handle the Holmes case, and that's what he's doing.
MARKUS: And Deasy says the trial is in good hands. George Brauchler's a lawyer and lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserve, previously deployed to Iraq. He's an accomplished law professor, and he's tried more than 150 cases.
DEASY: There is nobody who I would want handling that case more than I would want George to be handling that case. And you know what? I wish I was part of that team. I can tell you that.
DEASY: Yeah. What an experience.
MARKUS: Deasy says this is clearly the most high-profile case in Colorado history. As a deputy prosecutor, Brauchler tried the only felony cases to stem from the Columbine shooting - minor charges against a couple of gun sellers. Shortly after the Aurora shooting, Brauchler, then a candidate for district attorney, was surprised to find himself in the middle of the action again.
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BRAUCHLER: I'll bet if I asked you 15 years ago, hey, there's going to be two of the biggest shootings in the history of the United States here, and they're going to happen right here, where we live. You would laugh. You would say, no, come on now - not in Colorado. And yet here we are.
MARKUS: One big difference in the Aurora case - the killer will stand trial. For NPR News, I'm Ben Markus in Denver. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.