Normalcy returning for a public defender in Holmes case
GREELEY, Colo. — Tamara Brady heard the news as many of us did: while drinking coffee from her Greeley home, as the last wisps of sleep were swept away by one of the most atrocious crimes in Colorado’s history.
James Holmes, a man with orange hair, killed 12 people and wounded more than 70 during a midnight showing of the latest Batman movie in an Aurora movie theater July 20, 2012. Brady, a mother of a teenage daughter not much younger than many of Holmes’ victims, allowed herself a moment of shock and sorrow. Even by the ever-growing baseline of a mass shooting’s capacity to stun, the news caused her to pause.
Then she began to feel claustrophobic, even trapped, and she also felt obligated and ready.
She had not even really grasped the enormity of it yet, but she knew what she was facing. She is one of two chief trial deputies for the Colorado Public Defenders Office. She knew that, unless you’re O.J. Simpson, it was rare someone could afford to hire a defense for a death-penalty case. She also knew, given her title and experience, she would get the call.
When she agreed to take the case, she knew it would take over her life. It did. She told her husband and daughter she wouldn’t care what others would say about her. She didn’t, even if at times they did. She told herself that, when she was home in Greeley, she would forget about her work. She tried.
Three days later, she was in court with him for his first appearance.
Three years later, now that it’s finally over, she’s still recovering.
. . .
Mark Rapp met Brady in 1990, their second year of law school at the University of Colorado-Boulder. Brady knew she wanted to be a public defender. That was, in fact, the only reason she was going to law school. She even knew she wanted to defend death-penalty cases.
The two eventually married in 1992, and Rapp now works in his own Greeley practice as a divorce attorney. Rapp, who went to a secondary Catholic school just like Brady, liked her conviction. It was partly what attracted her to him.
“She thought the death penalty was wrong from a moral perspective,” he said from his downtown Greeley office.
In 2008, Brady got her chance. She defended her first capital client, David Bueno, in a murder trial in Hugo. Rapp remembers moving her into an apartment in Lyons in a dead freeze in January. It was depressing. Their daughter, Sydney, whom they adopted as an infant in 1997, was 11 and sad at the idea of her mother having to live there alone and away from her.
It lasted 12 weeks. There was one person, the victim’s mother, in the courtroom. The Associated Press spent one day covering it. There were no cameras. There were no newspapers. There was no one commenting on Twitter. Social media didn’t exist.
The Holmes trial, of course, was quite different.
. . .
When the prosecution asks to put the defendant to death, the trial becomes much more complex, even far more than a trial that could put the defendant away for life. The jury selection includes a pool of hundreds, not dozens, and the sentencing phase forces them to prepare a separate trial for the defendant’s life. The death penalty essentially turns one trial into two.
Early on, they decided they would never deny Holmes did commit the atrocious act, so Brady and her team first had to try to convince a jury what she already believed: Holmes’ mental illness led him to shoot those people in the theater. She knew the plea — not guilty by reason of insanity — would be a tough sell, but it was her job to try.
Her main job, however — or the part that was mostly her responsibility — was to save Holmes’ life. That’s the second part of the trial. Jurors need to unanimously agree to put him to death. She needed to convince them — or really, just one — to put him away for life instead.
The second question added at least a year to the trial, maybe two, and the undeniable guilt she felt whenever she was doing anything other than working. If she failed, after all, Holmes would die. She took that seriously. She cared about her clients. She kept in touch with her past clients. She sent them birthday and Christmas cards.
“I develop those relationships, too, with my clients,” Rapp said. “It’s unavoidable. Those folks in prison need a friend. They are the lost and forgotten souls.”
In preparation for the trial, Brady and the team had to sift through 100,000 pages and thousands of CDs and DVDs, and that was all just from the prosecution. Because she had to put together a defense of his life, she had to interview his teachers, family members and Holmes himself.
She could handle long hours, but the fact Holmes’ life was in her hands weighed on her. She grew used to waking up, many times after only a few hours of sleep, in a panic. Rapp worried about her health.
Because she was still a mother with a daughter in high school, she told herself that when she was at home or at one of Sydney’s softball games either at school or on the road with her traveling team, she would be present. She would not think about the trial.
“There was this cloud of guilt, of the need to work, of stress,” she said. “When I was at home, I told myself to be present. I would truly try to be engaged.”
As the trial approached, she found it harder to stick to her plan.
. . .
In January, a few days before Brady left for an apartment in Aurora, she sat down with Sydney. She wanted her to know a couple things.
Up until that point, Brady hadn’t really missed out on much, even if she was sometimes distracted. She didn’t miss any games, for instance, even when the team traveled. Upon reflection, she and Rapp got more joy out of going to her softball games than any other part of her life. Sydney never seemed happier than when she was on the diamond.
But once the trial started, Brady would be gone, except for the occasional weekend. She had to get permission from the judge to get time off to see Sydney’s graduation, and she had to get it months in advance. She wouldn’t get to see any of her games.
Brady told Sydney she wouldn’t sacrifice the moments of her senior year unless someone really needed her help. She also told Sydney she knew people would say things about her because she was defending Holmes, and she truly didn’t care what those people said.
Rapp sometimes followed the trial on Twitter, and, at times, he admits now, that was a mistake. Twitter’s herd mentality and immediacy encourages its users to type 140, filter-free, off-the-cuff letters; and, during the trial, Twitter was full of those who rooted against Holmes and his defense team. They used insulting and colorful language. Rapp never responded — that wouldn’t be appropriate, he said — but sometimes, because Brady was his wife, those comments pissed him off.
It helped him, though, to remember Brady has never wavered on her belief in the system and in her desire to be a public defender. He knew what he was getting into when he married her.
Sydney only wavered once — at a comment on Facebook — until Brady emphasized, again, she didn’t care.
“What I tried to teach her was everyone had a right to their viewpoint,” Brady said.
Yet Brady, because she is human, felt soothed, over and over, by Greeley. She felt immense relief every time she pulled into the driveway after another long week in Aurora. That was, in part, because she never saw any TV cameras waiting for her. She knew they were looking for her in Aurora. They never found her in Greeley.
It was also because of the way people treated her here. She had a number of people take her to dinner — mostly friends and neighbors — and others who brought meals, the way people do when a family is dealing with something hard like an illness. There were pleasant surprises, too. When she told some what she was doing, such as her group of softball parents, it was, for many, the first time she mentioned what she did for a living. Brady, in fact, had to reveal her profession to everyone. They would know sooner or later anyway.
Greeley is a city with a small-town feel to it, but it’s also a conservative city, a place filled with residents who likely support the death penalty. Brady preferred to do her talking in the courtroom, not to the media. She worked to abolish the death penalty one case at a time. She kicked away soapboxes.
“You could even see the look on their faces as I told them what I was doing,” she said, “and yet, they would be supportive. It could have gone either way.”
. . .
During the victims’ testimony, there were times Brady felt the same sorrow and shock she felt the day she heard the news. Even with all the work the trial brought on her and the weight of knowing Holmes’ life was on her back, hearing the awful stories of the pain caused by the shooting was the toughest part of the trial.
“Even if you’re reading about it, that’s hard enough,” she said. “But you’re hearing it firsthand from the victims. To see that was really, really hard, and, as the defense team, we were positioned between the pain of the victims and also the pain of James and his family. And there was nothing we could do that would alleviate any of the suffering.”
She and the team did make one concession: They didn’t cross-examine any of the victims.
“That was their time,” she said.
Yet, she defended Holmes because she views the incident as a tragedy for everyone. Holmes has a mental illness, she said. He was on the verge of doing great things before the illness overcame him. He was smart — a 4.0 student who found a place in science programs and seemed excited about a career in the neurosciences. He was shy, even withdrawn, but many of them are, one student in the program told her later during interviews.
“Usually, there’s a criminal record or something that leads to a murder,” Brady said. “But there was no violence of any kind. And then, he fell off a cliff. Imagine being the person who caused all that pain because of your illness.”
She hoped the jurors could see that, and the question she wanted jurors to ponder was whether Holmes should be executed for having a mental illness.
Mental illness is tough to treat. It is tough to diagnose, tough to medicate and, most of all, tough to get patients to seek help for it. Brady recalls a plane ride where she was reading a book on schizophrenia in an attempt to better understand her client. Her fellow passengers were starting to stare, she said, and she felt embarrassed.
“There’s a real embarrassment there,” she said. “It’s embarrassing to tell people you’re mentally-ill.”
Yet, he did seek out treatment, and it didn’t take. Our unfettered access to guns — he ordered the guns and thousands of rounds of ammo online — gives people such as Holmes a way to wreak havoc, Brady said. When Holmes isolated himself, it was impossible for anyone to see what was coming, even his own family. Sydney’s at college now, she said, and, as close as they are, Brady doesn’t know what she’s doing all the time.
In her closing argument, she opened by refusing to apologize for being emotional. She didn’t make an attempt to hide her emotions because she wanted the jury to know she truly believed what she was arguing.
“I didn’t want them to think I was a paid government worker just doing my job,” she said. “We aren’t some shysters.”
The question of his mental illness was enough. Three of them eventually agreed Holmes shouldn’t die because of it, even if one of the three who spoke anonymously to The Denver Post said Holmes deserved more than a life sentence.
Brady did her job, and, just like that, it was over.
At home, Rapp felt relief she survived such an ordeal without any serious health problems. Sydney had a different reaction, and, upon remembering it, Rapp tears up.
“When she heard the final verdict,” Rapp said, “Sydney was just so happy that her mother was coming home.”
. . .
On a sunny morning, the night before the first Broncos game, Brady sat in her home dressed in orange and blue and wondered what to do with herself. The couple’s golden retriever, Whitney, had a few ideas, but, otherwise, her house — and her mind — were both quiet. It felt weird.
“It’ll take some time before I’m really relaxed,” she said.
There wasn’t much time for relaxation those first couple of weeks after the trial was over. She and Rapp got Sydney settled for her first year at a small college in California, where she will play softball. Brady could be a mother again, shopping at Bed, Bath & Beyond and even enjoying a couple days in Vegas before they said goodbye.
“I tried to saturate her with attention,” Brady said. “She was probably sick of me by the end.”
She wishes she could have that time back, though she does not regret spending that much time on the case. She has, however, apologized to her mother. Her dad got cancer in August and died in December, and she wasn’t there as often as she believes she should have been. Rich Tosches of The Denver Post initially criticized Brady’s defense team for a delay in December, and Brady answered him with a letter to the Post that talked about her father, Richard. Tosches later wrote he wished he could take the column back, but Brady said it was good to write it as she got to tell people about her dad. It helped her grieve.
She’s back at work after taking five weeks off — time she accrued in the past three years — but she doesn’t plan on taking on a hard case for a bit. She seems recovered, Rapp said, even if Brady doesn’t feel that way just yet.
“She wasn’t there in some ways in forever,” he said. “But she’s back now.”
When asked if she would do another death penalty case, she says, at first, she would have to think about it. That’s like asking a new mother if she would have another child, she said.
She laughed a little, but there’s a lot behind that statement. Obviously she’s against the death penalty, but no one — even those who support it — could argue the cost of it was pretty high. It took three years of her life, and the lives of the team of five who defended Holmes. It cost far more than it would have otherwise, and Brady would prefer to see that money go to the victims or to treat mental illness.
In the end, Holmes got life. Just weeks later, Dexter Lewis, who killed five in a Denver bar by stabbing them to death, received a life sentence without the possibility of parole, as well, after he was up for the death penalty. There’s been talk perhaps the death penalty is too costly for Colorado, especially when both wound up with the same result than if they had been allowed to plead guilty.
Would she do it again? This time, she has another answer:
“I hope I never have to.”
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