Committee rules prisons should have done more to inform victims of theater gunman's secretive move

Policies changed after Victims Rights Act ruling
Posted at 9:21 PM, Apr 12, 2017

The Colorado Department of Corrections should have done more to inform victims of the Aurora theater attack about the out-of-state transfer of gunman James Holmes.

Last year, the state transferred Holmes to a still-undisclosed facility outside of Colorado after he was attacked by another inmate. The state has said that under the terms of its agreement with other states to transfer offenders, referred to as the interstate corrections compact, the new locations of offenders must be kept secret.

A decision by the state’s Victims Rights Act subcommittee called on CDOC to improve its notifications to victims, responding to complaints filed by several families whose loved ones were killed in the attack. The subcommittee said the state should have informed families in more detail why the gunman’s location could not be disclosed. The same subcommittee deadlocked on earlier complaints that the victims had the right to know where Holmes is incarcerated.

In its latest findings, the subcommittee wrote in part:

In reviewing the victim notification letters that were sent to the victims in this case, the VRA Subcommittee noted that the phrase ‘interstate correction compact transfer’ was listed as the location of the offender; however, “interstate correction compact transfer” is not a location, it is a process. By telling victims that it is a location, it is understandable that a crime victim would be confused as to what the term means.

Additionally, there was no information in the victim notification letters that explained what ‘interstate correction compact transfer’ meant or that it is considered a temporary transfer by DOC. Further, the notification letters did not include an explanation of the following: 1) why the offender was moved out of state, which could be done without disclosing the location; 2) why DOC chose not to inform the victims of the actual location of the offender; 3) that there is a legal agreement between Colorado and other states than prohibits DOC from informing victims of the offender’s location; or, 4) that the victims will be informed of any escape, release, death or  permanent transfer of the offender although they cannot know of the interstate compact location.

Providing greater clarity and answers to these questions would have been fair (in the sense that it would have violated no compact terms); and would have demonstrated greater respect for these victims.

District Attorney George Brauchler, who prosecuted Holmes, says the findings do not go far enough.

“If you look at the language of that, what it's saying is they didn't treat the victims nicely enough. They didn't give them the information appropriately enough. But it does not call into question their decision to whisk him away in secrecy and hide him under some other identity,” Brauchler told Denver7 Investigates.

CDOC responded to the subcommittee’s findings by updating their policies and victim notification materials to offer a more detailed explanation when an offender is moved under the interstate corrections compact. 

“The Department of Corrections strives to provide victims with services above and beyond those required by the Victims Rights Act. I believe these changes encompass the requirements of the Subcommittee’s findings and ensure that victims are provided clear, factual information,” CDOC commissioner Rick Raemisch wrote the subcommittee (in part) in response to the group’s findings.

Prosecutors, victims and their families are still hoping they will be given answers about the gunman’s whereabouts.

“At the end of the day what Coloradans should ask themselves is, how is it that every other notorious [murderer] or mass murderer who is in custody can be found online tonight except this guy?” Brauchler said. “Nidal Hasan, Tsarnaev, Manson, the Unabomber. You can find any of these people and where they're housed right now. But this guy is somehow so super special we've got to change the rules and keep information from victims in order to protect him. I don't buy that.”

“It's probably going to take some type of legislative or court battle of some kind,” said Tom Sullivan, whose son Alex Sullivan was murdered at the theater. “You have to hope for change. What's the alternative? It's hopelessness.”

Enjoy this content? Follow Denver7 on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and download the Denver7 app on iOS and Android devices for continual access to breaking news, weather and sports.