Brauchler closes out tenure as DA

For eight years, he helmed state’s largest district to praise, criticism

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His time helming Colorado’s largest judicial district began and ended with shootings that horrified the nation.

Cases like those — the 2012 Aurora theater shooting and the STEM School Highlands Ranch shooting of 2019 — left former 18th Judicial District Attorney George Brauchler with memories that haunt him.

Autopsy photos of 6-year-old Veronica Moser-Sullivan. A veteran law enforcement officer falling apart on the stand as he described cradling Veronica while rushing her away from the Aurora theater shooting scene.

Later in his terms, walking two schools frozen in a moment of terror — backpacks strewn about, overturned desks, burn marks on the walls — after gunmen opened fire on their classmates.

Brauchler’s hands-on management of big cases, along with his overall approach to criminal justice in a diverse, politically divided district also forged reputations.

Brauchler, a Republican, is a law-and-order man, skilled prosecutor, trusted friend, and some believe, destined for higher office. To others, he’s a punitive district attorney, partisan politician, and blind to racial disparities in criminal justice.

Arapahoe County Democrats “are happy to see George Brauchler go,” party chair Kristin Mallory said.

“He definitely doesn’t represent Arapahoe County,” she said.

Douglas County Sheriff Tony Spurlock, a Republican, hopes this is far from the last Colorado has seen of Brauchler.

“I’d like to see that guy as my congressman,” Spurlock said.

Brauchler’s successor, John Kellner, asked him to stay on as special prosecutor for the upcoming STEM School shooting trial. He’ll continue serving part-time on the case, but as of Jan. 12 his eight years as district attorney are over.

One week before leaving office, the term-limited DA stood surrounded by years’ worth of files making their way into moving boxes. Brauchler has packed up and left. Where he’s going remains to be seen.

Big cases, diverse district

State Rep. Tom Sullivan came to know Brauchler in 2012 as the recently elected district attorney took on prosecuting the Aurora theater shooter. Sullivan’s son Alex died on his 27th birthday in the rampage that left 11 more dead.

For more than three years, Sullivan’s family worked closely with Brauchler while the case raged on. Since then Sullivan said he’s stepped back to look at the bigger picture of Brauchler’s career.

“He’s pretty much shown that he is a party-over-person legislator of the people,” Sullivan said.

Sullivan, a Democrat, went on from the shooting to flip House District 37 in 2018 and today represents portions of Centennial and unincorporated Arapahoe County.

The two men found themselves at political odds numerous times since, Sullivan said. Sullivan ran for office intent on addressing gun violence and took note when Brauchler advocated against gun control measures he pursued, Sullivan said.

They found some common ground when lawmakers repealed Colorado’s death penalty in 2020.

Brauchler, a Parker resident, has been a staunch supporter of capital punishment, calling it a critical tool for holding the “worst of the worst” accountable. He still thinks the repeal should have been sent to a vote of the people rather than decided at the Capitol.

“They were gutless,” Brauchler said.

Sullivan had pleaded with his fellow lawmakers to keep capital punishment on the books.

Despite their shared support on the issue, Brauchler’s unsuccessful pursuit of it in the Aurora theater shooting case remains a point of contention for Sullivan, who is convinced the sole dissenting juror’s mind was made up “on Day 1.” He faults Brauchler’s team for not detecting that.

“They didn’t get the death penalty qualified jury on the case. I mean, it’s as simple as that,” Sullivan said.

That gun violence bookended Brauchler’s tenure — beginning with Aurora, ending with STEM School, and the 2013 Arapahoe High School shooting in-between — is not lost on Sullivan.

The legislator wants a proactive approach to preventing gun violence, he said, but says Brauchler would rather “throw the book at them” once someone commits gun violence.

“He certainly hasn’t made us any safer. He certainly hasn’t done anything to stop that from happening in our community,” Sullivan said.

Brauchler has been asked why his community and surrounding areas have been hit with multiple cases of horrific gun violence. After eight years, the question still confounds him.

His community is filled with good people, he said, adding “I don’t think we are doing anything wrong.”

“I don’t know,” he said. “I truly don’t know. I want to say it’s a function of coincidence.”

‘What he’s built for’

Kellner, also a Republican, said the 18th has taken measures to curb gun violence, like through its “robust juvenile diversion program” that helps reduce recidivism rates and monitoring illegal gun sales.

The new district attorney first met Brauchler more than a decade ago at a military training course. When Brauchler asked him to join the 18th in 2012 and help start up a cold case unit, Kellner said “it was a no brainer.”

As a boss, Brauchler didn’t micromanage his staff, Kellner said. He laid out expectations and set deputies free to make decisions “that we thought were best for our community.”

Kellner said some of his predecessor’s successes were building out problem-solving courts and launching a veteran treatment court, ventures he expected some district attorneys might pass up.

“He was willing to take those chances,” Kellner said.

Kellner also credited Brauchler as one of the people who influenced what his approach will be to high-profile cases.

“When there is something so impactful in the community, it’s up to the district attorney to be heavily involved and that often means trying the case,” Kellner said.

Working in the courtroom’s trenches also gives district attorneys crucial insight to advise prosecutors on hard cases, Kellner said.

Mallory, the Arapahoe County Democrats chair, said Brauchler missed the mark on some cases that gained widespread attention.

The district attorney’s office announced in January that Aurora police officers who handcuffed a Black family, including young children, at gunpoint after mistaking their vehicle as stolen will not face charges.

“We know JD 18 has refused to prosecute the cops in Aurora who put Black children face-down on hot pavement,” she said. “I think that reflects a failure.”

The office’s report on the incident described the officers’ actions as intolerable and in need of further investigation but not criminal.

Mallory believes Brauchler lacks “a full understanding of how white supremacy plays a role in our criminal justice system.”

Brauchler better represented the district’s other three counties, all Republican strongholds, Mallory said, while Arapahoe County is a working-class community. It’s diverse in terms of culture, religion and race, she said. Douglas, Elbert and Lincoln counties make up the remainder of the district.

Being “tough on crime” is also expensive, she said, as is pursuing the death penalty. In that regard, Brauchler was not financially responsible “or even a conservative DA for us,” she said.

In a word, she describes his approach to being district attorney as “punitive.” People in Arapahoe County need restorative justice that focuses on “root cause of crime,” she said.

Brauchler has been critical of rehabilitation programs but refutes any notion he’s against them.

“You’re talking also to the district attorney of an office that has the largest, most successful juvenile diversion program in the country,” he said. “You’re not talking to someone who is opposed to meaningful paths away from incarceration.”

He said “an increasingly progressive and forgiveness first” state Legislature is taking tools away from law enforcement and making rehabilitation programs too lenient.

Brauchler said the justice system must have predictable and meaningful sentences for offenders, and before that, communities that take responsibility for socioeconomic conditions leading people to crime.

Spurlock hopes Brauchler reaches Congress. He also hopes Brauchler becomes district attorney of the 23rd Judicial District, which will be Colorado’s newest in decades when Douglas, Lincoln and Elbert counties break off from the 18th in 2024.

“That’s what he’s built for,” Spurlock said.

He has made many after-hours call to Brauchler when crisis struck. The district attorney stood by him as a guide and personal friend during the most traumatic moments for Spurlock since he became sheriff, Spurlock said.

When a gunman opened fire on several of his deputies, killing Deputy Zackari Parrish on New Year’s Eve in 2017, Brauchler rushed to the scene, arriving shortly after law enforcement confirmed Parrish’s death.

“The emotion that was there in the parking lot, the sense of loss and grief,” Brauchler said.

The district attorney was out-of-state when the STEM School shooting unfolded, but immediately boarded a plane home when Spurlock phoned with the news.

“He was not afraid to get out of bed in the middle of the night and come to a major scene and be there and provide guidance and support, and law enforcement loved him for that,” Spurlock said.

Brauchler put an emphasis on getting justice for victims, Spurlock said, in the courtroom and in other stages of criminal justice as well.

Spurlock credited Brauchler as instrumental in opening the Unified Metropolitan Forensic Crime Laboratory in 2018, hailed as one solution to shortening evidence-processing backlogs at the state lab.

Brauchler was also guided by “what was just and right,” Spurlock said, and didn’t prosecute based on politics. He called Brauchler “one of the fairest guys that I had ever come across in the DA (role).”

“We never had the discussion of politics, of well, what is the political landscape of this if we do this or that,” Spurlock said.

‘Blink of an eye’

The district has had “more than its share of big cases,” Brauchler said. The work never feels done. Leaving the job was surreal.

“You take for granted how that constant pressure and that constant vigilance to stay on top of cases,” he said, “makes the time go by in the blink of an eye.”

Brauchler, 51, says he does not know what his next job will be. Staying on the STEM case, a “personal and professional” priority for him, made committing to a new role difficult.

He might join a law firm. Holding elected office still interests him too, although the political climate today feels “super negative and so, super tribal,” Brauchler said, and he’s keenly aware Colorado is less purple than it once was. For now, he’s weighing his options.

“I am just old enough now to recognize that my unbridled ambition,” he said, “needs to be tempered.”

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