Chuck E. Cheese killer, Aurora theater shooting gunman cases have similarities

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DENVER -- He represented one of the last three men on Colorado's death row -- until Gov. John Hickenlooper granted a temporary reprieve to Chuck E. Cheese killer Nathan Dunlap.

Criminal defense lawyer Phil Cherner has been there before, representing a convicted killer who faced a future with lethal injection.

Now, he’s sharing his thoughts on the state’s latest death penalty case and the grief it has brought to so many.

The James Holmes jury said no to the death penalty and one of the state's biggest opponents of capital punishment says  they got it right.

Cherner helped save mass murderer Dunlap from death by a hypodermic needle full of poison. And he watched as another jury -- 22 years later -- deliberated whether to impose a similar fate for the Aurora theater gunman.

The cases have similarities.

"The district attorneys asked (Dunlap) be executed because, ‘If not him, who?’ Much like they did again in Holmes. The jury again, at least this time, they said, ‘not this one,’" Cherner said.

He is a vocal opponent to the death penalty, even in the face of raw pain from victim's families.

“Our loved ones were ripped from us and they were slaughtered in that movie theater. But the jury chose another way and we have to accept that," said Sandy Phillips, mother of victim Jessica Ghawi.

He said killing is wrong no matter who does it.

"We can't bring those loved ones back as much as we want to, as much as we would try. And adding more to the death toll is no more than vengeance,"  Cherner said.

He said all the death penalty process does is waste incredible amounts of money and cause families undue stress. And for what? He says the 18th Judicial District hasn't executed anyone in more than 50 years.

"They should be more candid with victims upfront and explain how incredibly difficult it is and how unlikely it is they'll be successful because their batting average is zero," Cherner said.

And in the end, he said families end up with the same result.

"(Holmes) was always going to die in the Department of Corrections. ... Thee question was would he die 20 years out, approaching age 50 at the hands of an executioner or die of natural causes," Cherner said.

He said he thinks Holmes will get the longest sentence in the history of Colorado: 2,000 years in prison plus, 12 consecutive life sentences.

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