Standing in the courtroom Wednesday, Robert Lewis Dear, the suspect in November's Planned Parenthood shooting in Colorado Springs, Colorado, admitted guilt and declared himself a "warrior for the babies." Given the severity of his crimes, Dear could face the death penalty under Colorado law. But even if prosecutors go that route, there is no guarantee he will be put to death. The state has only executed one man since reinstating the death penalty in 1975.
The 57-year-old suspect was charged with 179 felony charges by prosecutors including first-degree murder, attempted murder, and other crimes. He killed three during his attacks on the women's health clinic and shot and wounded nine. The murder charge could result in life in prison or death penalty, but prosecutors must decide which punishment to pursue. They have said they are still undecided.
Dear's outbursts — reportedly more than 20 — revolved around his anti-abortion views, signaling his motive in the rampage. "You'll never know what I saw in that clinic. Atrocities. The babies. That's what they want to seal," Dear said, according to the Associated Press. A bailiff repeatedly tried to keep him quiet. When lawyers spoke of the victims in the shooting, Dear interrupted. "Could you add the babies that were supposed to be aborted that day? Could you add that to the list?" he reportedly said.
Dear repeatedly interrupted his own lawyer who attempted to limit publicity of the case with a gag order. The lawyer, public defender Daniel King, also addressed Dear's mental health. He said defense lawyers wanted access to the evidence as soon as possible so that they could assess the severity of Dear's mental illness.
"Do you know who this lawyer is?" Dear then interrupted again. "He's the lawyer for the Batman shooter. Who drugged him all up. And that's what they want to do to me." King represented Aurora theater shooter James Holmes, who attacked moviegoers during a showing of The Dark Night Rises in 2012. Holmes was placed on anti-psychotic medication during his trial. Dear said he didn't want lawyers to "shut me up," and he said several times he wanted "the truth to come out."
Holmes' case could actually be a preview of what's to come for Dear if prosecutors decide to pursue the death penalty. Holmes, who killed 12 and injured 70, was found guilty but was only sentenced to life in prison without parole after jurors could not come to an agreement on the death penalty. "I still think death is justice for what that guy did," the prosecutor, George Brauchler, said after trial, but the decision was not in his hands — nor the judge's.
Using Colorado's three-tier sentencing system for the death penalty, Holmes was first accused of aggravating factors that make the crime especially bad, like killing multiple victims. Prosecutors have to prove at least one. There are 17 defined by Colorado statute, including killing a government employee such as a police officer. Dear killed Garrett Swasey, a University of Colorado Colorado Springs police officer and father of two, in the Planned Parenthood attacks.
Then in the second stage, the mitigation stage, defense attorneys must prevent information on the accused's character or mental illness, the main focus in the Aurora shooting case. This could also be an avenue for the public defenders in Dear's case, given his lawyer's comments during Wednesday's hearing. They must show that the mental illness or another mitigating factor outweighs the aggravating factors.
Finally, in the third phase, relatives of those killed are asked to speak about how the killings have affected their lives. At any point during the sentencing process, jurors can vote for life in prison. If they instead would prefer the death penalty, they must wait until the end of the three phases and vote unanimously. In Holmes' case, one juror could not be persuaded to sentence him to death, which is why Holmes is now serving a life sentence.
Holmes' sentencing for the Aurora theater shooting shows the difficulty in applying the death penalty in the state. Currently only three people are on death row in Colorado, and no one has been executed since 1997. A debate continues in the state on capital punishment. Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper issued a temporary reprieve on executions in 2013 that will hold as long as he is governor. He was reelected in 2014.
If anyone deserves the death penalty, Dear would be one of them. But, given the difficulty in reaching a death penalty conviction, and the continued discussion of its moral place in society, prosecutors may be better off to agree to a plea for life in prison. Dear already said he was guilty on Wednesday.