AURORA | When accused theater shooter James Holmes made his first court appearance Monday, five seasoned lawyers sat at the prosecution table, including elected District Attorney Carol Chambers.
But the prosecutors handling Holmes’ case could be very different next year when a new DA takes over in January for Chambers, who is term limited.
The two candidates vying for Chambers’ seat — Republican George Brauchler and Democrat Ethan Feldman — are both from outside the current ranks of Chambers’ deputies, and, for now, can only watch the case unfold from the outside.
“That’s the limitation you have when you are an outsider looking in,” Brauchler said Friday.
It’s a situation local legal experts say they haven’t seen before: A new district attorney from outside the current administration stepping in to such a high-profile capital case midway through.
“They are going to have to get up to speed very, very quickly,” said Karen Steinhauser, a former Denver prosecutor now teaching law at the University of Denver and working in private practice.
Steinhauser said it’s uncommon enough for a new DA to be someone from outside the current administration. Typically, the new DA is someone from within the current administration, something that was the case in Arapahoe County for more than 40 years before this fall’s election.
And experts say the changeover can often involve a heavy turnover among prosecutors, either because the newly elected district attorney wants to bring in new personnel, or because prosecutors loyal to the former DA opt to leave.
Bob Grant, who was elected DA in Adams County from 1992 to 2005, said transitions are usually fairly smooth.
“A transition always occurs, and there are always big cases going on, that’s what you have staff for,” he said.
Grant said he doesn’t remember a situation like this locally, but that’s something people have been repeatedly saying since the slayings.
“Of course, there has never been a case like this, 70 victims, it boggles the mind,” he said.
As for tangible impacts the change could have on the case, Grant said it’s important to note that because of the scale of the case, and because of a possible insanity defense, there is a chance Holmes’ case won’t even be that far along by the time January rolls around.
A decision on whether prosecutors will seek the death penalty likely won’t be made until after the new DA takes over, Grant said.
That decision has to be made within 60 days of Holmes’ arraignment, and Grant said it isn’t likely Holmes will be arraigned before the new DA takes over.
Grant knows both Brauchler and Feldman and said both are experienced prosecutors who should have little trouble stepping into the case.
“It won’t take much for them to hit the ground running,” he said.
When it comes to capital punishment, both Brauchler and Feldman are death penalty supporters, but both were reluctant to comment specifically about the case.
“It would be irresponsible to make a decision based on the limited information we have, especially this early,” Brauchler said.
Feldman said he didn’t want to comment much on the case because he didn’t want any comments to undermine the current administration’s prosecution. But, Feldman said, he is confident that the experienced working the case are doing well.
“I’m confident that the DA’s office is handling the matter appropriately,” he said.