Colorado death penalty in focus as massacre trial enters new phase

By Keith Coffman and Daniel Wallis

DENVER (Reuters) - The lead prosecutor in the Colorado movie massacre trial tore into the state's governor at a news conference, calling him arrogant and weak for giving the mass murderer a reprieve from execution.

This was two years ago, and Arapahoe County District Attorney George Brauchler was not talking about James Holmes, who last week was found guilty on all counts by a jury for fatally shooting 12 people and wounding 70 at a midnight premiere of a Batman film in July 2012.

At the time, Brauchler was responding to Governor John Hickenlooper's decision to grant a temporary reprieve in an earlier Denver-area mass killing. That case sheds light on the political sensitivities surrounding the ultimate punishment in Colorado.

On Wednesday, the jury which convicted Holmes on 165 counts of first-degree murder, attempted murder, and explosives charges begin the penalty phase of the trial. After hearing more weeks of testimony, they will decide if the California native is to be executed by lethal injection, or serve life in prison with no possibility of parole.

Colorado has executed just one inmate in nearly 50 years. Still, a Denver Post poll last year showed 63 percent of state residents surveyed support the death penalty. In the case of Holmes, a separate poll by the newspaper this week showed an overwhelming 70 percent favored execution for the former neuroscience graduate student. That poll had received more than 5,800 votes by Tuesday afternoon.

Two years ago, Brauchler called his news conference at the state Capitol to denounce Hickenlooper's granting of a so-called "temporary reprieve" to the state's longest-serving death row inmate. Nathan Dunlap was convicted in 1996 of killing four workers at a pizza restaurant where he had recently been fired.

The temporary reprieve meant the governor's successor could reinstate Dunlap's death sentence, and the prosecutor decried the decision as indecisive, and "clemency light."

"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," Brauchler told reporters at the time.


In addition to Dunlap there are two other convicted murderers on Colorado's death row. All three African-American men were prosecuted by the same Arapahoe County District Attorney's office, and all attended the same suburban Denver high school.

But that is only part of the state's story with the death penalty. At least four Colorado death sentences were overturned after the U.S Supreme Court ruled only juries could condemn an inmate to death. The ruling said laws in Colorado and other states were unconstitutional because they let judges impose the death sentence.

Another inmate's death sentence was commuted to life after it was learned jurors consulted a Bible during deliberations.

In another high-profile recent case, prosecutors sought the death penalty for Edward Montour, an inmate who was already serving a life sentence for killing his 11-week-old daughter. Montour beat corrections officer Eric Autobee to death with a ladle in a prison kitchen in 2002.

Acting as his own lawyer, Montour pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and was sentenced to death by a judge. The sentence was one of those overturned by the Supreme Court ruling against judge-imposed death sentences.

The case landed back in the district attorney's office, and Brauchler vowed to try Montour again and seek the death penalty.

But the saga took an unexpected twist when the victim's father, Robert Autobee, a former corrections officer, went public with his opposition to the execution of his son's killer.

Autobee, 60, launched a campaign against the death penalty and was soon embroiled in a war of words with Brauchler, who filed a motion seeking to have Autobee barred from testifying at Montour's trial.

And the case then took a further turn last year when Montour's new lawyers uncovered evidence that he may have been unjustly convicted in his daughter's death. The infant may have suffered from a medical condition, the lawyers said, and her father may not have inflicted her injuries.

Brauchler relented, and allowed Montour to plead guilty to killing the prison guard in exchange for a life sentence.

Autobee has since attended parts of the movie massacre trial, and one day sat with Holmes' parents, Arlene and Bob. Autobee said the gunman's mother contacted him after she read about his campaign to end the death penalty.

"I could feel their pain, and decided that if I'm going to be against the death penalty, I need to be visible," Autobee told Reuters by telephone.

(Reporting by Keith Coffman and Daniel Wallis; Editing by David Gregorio)