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Texas Rocked by District Attorney Shooting

April 1, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
In an update on two shootings, prosecutors pushed for the death penalty for James Holmes, the shooter in the massacre at an Aurora, Colo., theater. In Kaufman County, Texas, District Attorney Mike McLelland and his wife were shot dead in their home. Margaret Warner talks to Carol McKinley in Denver and Bill Zeeble in Dallas.
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MARGARET WARNER: And to updates on two shootings, in Texas and in Colorado.

Guards with semiautomatic weapons patrolled Texas courthouses today, after Kaufman County district attorney Mike McLelland and his wife, Cynthia, were murdered Saturday night in their own home. It is the second shooting of a prosecutor in the small Texas town this year, coming just two months after assistant district attorney Mark Hasse was shot dead outside the local courthouse on his way to work.

I’m joined by Bill Zeeble. He’s covering the story for KERA Public Radio in North Texas.

And, Bill, welcome to the program.

Tell us what you can about the investigation. What trail of events, what possible links are authorities looking at and trying to get to the bottom of who killed McLelland and his wife?

BILL ZEEBLE, KERA Public Radio: Well, good to be here.

Authorities are looking at gangs, like the Aryan Brotherhood, possibly other gangs, because there seems to be a tie-in to these deaths, Mark Hasse, as you said, January 31, and then almost two months later, DA McLelland and his wife at home.

So they’re looking at — at anybody who would have a reason to kill these law enforcement officials. Vengeance might be one. And you will find vengeful prisoners who might want to get these guys.

They’re — and within the Aryan Brotherhood, there was a message, an e-mail sent out from the U.S. Marshals that said after an indictment last fall against members of the Aryan Brotherhood that, in December, there was a warning that said they might be out to attack and punish law enforcement officials, and from Aryan Brotherhood anyway, punishment could be mean violence and death.

So that’s a possible link. It’s not proven yet.

MARGARET WARNER: And so had assistant DA Mark Hasse or district attorney McLelland been involved in anyway in the furtherance of these indictments from last fall?

BILL ZEEBLE: Well, the office of the district attorney in Kaufman County was one of a broad range of affiliates involved with the racketeering indictment, but just one of many.

Mr. Hasse wasn’t directly involved in prosecutions regarding members of the Aryan Brotherhood. That was according to Mike McLelland when he gave a press conference Jan. 31st. And then there was no direct link from the sheriff who talked to reporters the other day tying Mr. McLelland to the Aryan Brotherhood direct link, but Mike McLelland had said that members lived in and were involved in his community in Kaufman County. So he knows they existed.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, what is exactly the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas? And what sorts of things are they accused of?

BILL ZEEBLE: Well, they’re largely prison-based. They date back to California in the 1960s, so they have been around almost 50 years.

It’s a white supremacist group with a military-style setup with generals and other leaders. You’re supposed to report to them. And you’re not supposed to break any bond of loyalty, at the risk of severe punishment or death. And they apparently make money from illegal drugs and robbery and thievery and all sorts of criminal activity.

MARGARET WARNER: And I understand that also investigators are looking at the killing of, speaking of prisons, a prison chief in Colorado just two weeks ago. What could be the link there?

BILL ZEEBLE: Well, the link is the method.

Tom Clements, who was the chief of the prison system in Colorado, was shot at — at his front door. Knock on the door, opened it, and he was shot by a former prison inmate from the Colorado prison. Then the other day, you know, the Clements family — or, rather, the McLelland family were shot in home. A knock on the door and then Cynthia McLelland was shot. And then a little further in the house, officials report that they shot Mike McLelland.

So a knock on the door and the shootings then occur. And so that’s the common link. But the officials — law enforcement officials have not been able to connect the dots directly to say beyond a superficial method that there’s a link.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Bill Zeeble of KERA in Dallas, thank you.

BILL ZEEBLE: You’re welcome.

MARGARET WARNER: And to our update on a second shooting.

It involves a trial for the suspect in last summer’s massacre at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo. During a court hearing today, prosecutors said they will seek the death penalty for James Holmes in the attacks that killed 12 people and injured 58 others. The judge put off the start of the trial back until February.

Carol McKinley is a freelance correspondent who has been in the courtroom. I spoke with her between court sessions earlier today.

Carol McKinley, thank you for being with us.

Tell us about what happened in court today. Why did the prosecutor say he is going to go to trial and seek a death penalty and essentially rejecting the offer by the defense to have a plea agreement here?

CAROL MCKINLEY, Freelance Journalist: Well, this is a pretty conservative prosecutor.

He just got voted in, in November knowing that this was going to be his case. His name is George Brauchler. And one of the things he said was that he looked over every statute. He met with 60 victims and relatives of victims who died, only the ones who died. Also, his office reached out to 800 of the people who were in theater nine the night of July 20th.

And from talking to all those people, he said he assessed his decision that justice is death. He feels like if anyone deserves the death penalty, it would be James Holmes, because most people believe that James Holmes is the person who committed this act that early morning on a Friday.

MARGARET WARNER: Did he say anything about why he didn’t entertain the defense’s offer to plead guilty to this crime in return for life in prison without parole?

CAROL MCKINLEY: Well, he believes that what the defense was doing was posturing.

He believes that they were just trying to stall for time so that they can keep their client alive, because basically that’s what they want. That is their M.O., and that’s what they’re going to do, is they are going to throw as many motions out there as they can to keep James Holmes from, you know, being killed basically by the government.

And so what Brauchler said is that, if he takes the offer of guilty in exchange for life, the door would be closed. By going for the death penalty, he can change his mind now if he wants to, so he feels like he has much more to — you know, to work with if he goes for death.

MARGARET WARNER: And what was the reaction in the courtroom?

CAROL MCKINLEY: Well, in the courtroom, there were quite a few victims’ families and people who were injured who were crying, very upset, maybe not because they were sad for James Holmes, maybe because they were sad for their loved one.

One woman ran down the hall in tears. There were people who defiantly looked at the press because they were trying to send a message, this is what I believe, too. In fact, one of the — one of the friends of Alex Sullivan, who died in theater nine that night, said, I want to be in the front row if James Holmes is executed. I’m all for this, even if there’s pain involved.

MARGARET WARNER: So, what can you tell us or what do you know about what the defense intends to do now in terms of whether or not, for instance, to file an insanity defense?

CAROL MCKINLEY: They probably will.

They will probably change their plea from guilty in that — the deal that they tried to make to not guilty by reason of insanity. There will be motion after motion. They have got hundreds of pages of discovery. There were thousands of detectives and police officers who were involved in this. They need to talk to all of them.

They wanted — they didn’t want this trial to start until the fall of 2014. The trial is going to start Feb. 3rd of 2014, so a year-and-a-half from when, you know, the people were killed. So we’re looking at just a little bit of less than a year from now. But I think what they’re going to do is, they’re going to file every motion they can.

MARGARET WARNER: So, in — every state is different in terms of capital crimes. In Colorado, how much harder is it to convict someone and get the death sentence than simply to win a conviction?

CAROL MCKINLEY: You know, it’s hard to say.

The last time we had anyone executed in the state of Colorado was in 1997, November, a guy named Gary Davis. We just had a huge issue in our state legislature where the Democrats brought forward an idea to abolish the death penalty. Knowing that James Holmes was likely going to go to trial soon, that idea was repealed. So we still have our death penalty, but it’s been up in the air.

At this time, we have three people on death row. One of those people has been on death row for a couple of decades. So it takes a long time. It’s very hard to do here.

MARGARET WARNER: And, finally, on an insanity defense, again, every state is a little different in terms of what the standard is. What does the defense have to demonstrate to get him declared not guilty by reason of insanity?

CAROL MCKINLEY: You know, they’re going to have to show that he was spiraling, that they’re going to have to call witnesses who saw him in spiral, which could be people he was in school with, maybe his professors, maybe his family. And they’re going to have to show his communications, things that were in his computer. Was he holed up in his apartment in the dark by himself as he spiraled down?

They’re going to need to bring in his psychiatrist, the one from the University of Colorado, Lynne Fenton, who we have heard so much about. They’re also going to have to go down to the state hospital and have him diagnosed. They have said — they have hinted that he’s schizophrenic.

And the prosecution says, yes, maybe he’s mentally ill, but he meant to do this and he planned it. He knew what he was doing.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, as the judge said today, this trial is going to last a very long time.

Carol McKinley, thank you very much.

CAROL MCKINLEY: OK.