Familiar lawyer and issues loom over Colorado rampage case

Reuters News
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Posted: Dec 07, 2015 7:03 AM

By Keith Coffman and Daniel Wallis

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (Reuters) - The suited lawyer whispered in the ear of the hulking suspect in the mass shooting at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado, then Robert Lewis Dear answered "no questions" after briefly shaking his big, bearded head.

It was the most the public has heard from Dear, who was trussed in handcuffs, leg irons and strapped into a thick, padded smock while speaking last week to the judge by video from jail, and that is exactly how Daniel King wants it.

The public defender for Dear, 57, who police say surrendered after killing three people and wounding nine in the Nov. 27 clinic rampage, King most recently represented Colorado movie massacre gunman James Holmes.

Within hours of taking on Dear's case, King's team had filed motions seeking to seal evidence, visit the crime scene, have defense experts observe forensic tests, and the imposition of a gag order to prevent anyone in law enforcement from disclosing details of the crime.

Colorado's public defenders have successfully had several death sentences overturned on appeal, and are widely viewed as among the nation's most effective death penalty litigators.

Dear is being held without bond on suspicion of first-degree murder pending the filing of formal charges on Wednesday.

That will set in motion months, if not years, of legal maneuvering in Colorado's latest high-profile murder case, with the state public defender's office again at the forefront.

DEATH PENALTY CASE?

In addition to Holmes, who was convicted this summer of multiple murders but spared capital punishment after jurors could not agree unanimously that he should be executed, King also defended one of Colorado's current three death-row inmates, whose case is under appeal.

His early appearance alongside Dear seems to indicate that the defense anticipates El Paso County District Attorney Dan May will seek the death penalty, legal analysts said.

"Given that there were three victims, including a police officer, and an experienced lawyer like King was there, it appears the public defenders are bracing for a death penalty case," said Colorado criminal defense lawyer Zak Malkinson.

Since there is no doubt Dear was the shooter in Colorado Springs, another insanity defense like the one raised in the Holmes trial is a possibility, said Malkinson, who served for seven years as a California public defender before entering private practice.

While some may view the clinic rampage as an obvious contender for a death penalty case, the decision to seek a defendant's execution is not so clear-cut, said Arapahoe County District Attorney George Brauchler, who prosecuted Holmes.

"The size and scope of the crime, the aggravators, but also the mitigating factors such as mental health, are all things to be considered," Brauchler said.

Before deciding to seek execution in the Holmes case, Brauchler said he consulted several other prosecutors, including May. The other prosecutors also sat in on a meeting at which King tried unsuccessfully to persuade Brauchler to take the death penalty off the table.

CONSERVATIVE JURY POOL

May said he has not decided if he will seek Dear's execution, and has 63 days after Dear ultimately enters a plea, which is likely months away, to announce his intentions.

Whether or not May seeks capital punishment, a jury pool will be drawn from one of the most conservative areas of the state, should the case go to trial.

Colorado Springs and the surrounding El Paso County are Republican strongholds with a large Evangelical Christian presence. They are also home to six military installations, including the U.S. Air Force Academy and the U.S. Army's mountain post, Fort Carson.

Colorado's longest-serving death-row inmate, Nathan Dunlap, was convicted and sentenced to death by an El Paso County jury after his trial was moved there from the Denver area.

But Colorado has executed just one inmate in nearly 50 years, largely due to the efforts of its public defenders.

The same month Holmes' life was spared, public defenders persuaded a Denver jury not to condemn Dexter Lewis to death after he was convicted of multiple murders for stabbing to death five people inside a bar during a botched robbery.

(Reporting by Keith Coffman and Daniel Wallis, Editing by Franklin Paul)