Second-Degree Burn (Part I)

Cher Elder's family knew all about Thomas Luther. The jury didn't.

The pen moved across the page as though guided by someone else's hand, leaving fragmented thoughts and raw emotions. Sometimes it seemed that writing was the only thing that kept her sane. Rhonda Edwards had filled several notebooks with such bits and pieces since her daughter, Cher Elder, had disappeared in March 1993.

Now, three years later, the man who killed Cher by pumping three bullets into the back of her head had just been found guilty of second-degree murder. Thomas Edward Luther, 38, was likely to spend the rest of his life in prison

Rhonda knew she should be happy that Luther had been convicted, at least feel some sense of relief. After all, nailing him for Cher's death had been no sure thing. That morning, when it became apparent the jury was deadlocked, she had feared the worstEthat man, that smirking, laughing monster who sat at the defense table like a choirboy, might not be held accountable for Cher's death at all.

"I feel anger, rage, and resentment. I have lost a piece of myself," Rhonda wrote as she sat in a friend's living room, waiting for the evening news. "I know I will never be the same as I was before her death, some sorrows leave deeper scars than others. A mother's loss of her child is a deep scarE"

Justice seemed hollow, as empty as the hole into which they'd lowered Cher's casket almost two years to the day after she'd been murdered. Executed, Rhonda thought, by a man who raped and attacked young women because they looked like his abusive mother. Pretty. Small. Dark hair to the shoulders.

"Cher didn't get a fair trial," Rhonda wrote. "Our justice system can be twisted, because of one person who cannot see that execution by three bullets to the back of the head is deliberate murder." One juror, a 65-year-old woman, had held out for second-degree murder even though her eleven colleagues believed Luther was guilty of murder in the first degree. Then Jefferson County District Judge Christopher Munch had invoked a little-used Colorado law by telling the eleven jurors it was their duty to compromise and find Luther guilty of the lesser charge.

After the verdict was announced, many of the jurors met with Cher's family, apologizing through their tears. Now there would be no death-penalty phase. No public hearing to air the real truth about Luther to counter the whitewashed version that had been presented in court.

No equal payment for what he had done to Cher.
No retribution.
Rhonda held together just long enough to get out of the courtroom. She hadn't wanted him to see her cry. Luther was smiling and hugging his attorneys like he'd won, actually talking about how he now could get back in shape in the prison weight room.

Her hand was moving again. "There is a vacuum that can never be filledEa terrible emptinessEto be able to talk to your child you have to go to a cemetery and visit a cold stoneEit is the most heartbreak a mother can have."

The trial that began January 16 in Judge Munch's courtroom was never going to be an easy one for prosecutors. For all the debate about the holdout juror, it could have been lost at several points along the way. There was no physical evidence putting the gun in Luther's hand; no one who'd seen him shoot Cher Elder. Two of the prosecution's three key witnesses were criminals and habitual liars who had worked out deals in exchange for their testimony; the third was Debrah Snider, Luther's former girlfriend turned reluctant betrayer, and no one knew for sure how she would react.

Defense lawyers Lauren Cleaver and Michael Enwall would certainly do their best to paint the prosecution witnesses in the worst possible light, while prosecutors Dennis Hall and Mark Minor would be prohibited from referring to Luther's criminal past.

The prosecution had been dealt a severe blow before the trial even began, when Munch ruled in December that evidence of Luther's history of "bad acts" and "prior similars"--chiefly the brutal rapes of two women in 1982 and 1994--should not be presented to the jurors. Hall and Minor would have to tiptoe around Luther's prior convictions, even though he'd been in a West Virginia jail serving time for the 1994 rape when a Jefferson County grand jury indicted him in March 1995 on two counts of first-degree murder for the killing of Cher Elder.

Even Luther's comments to other inmates that he would kill the next girl he sexually assaulted and then hide her body would have to be sanitized for the jury, removing any reference to prison and the fact that Luther had been found guilty of attacking other women.

Munch's ruling blew any chance the prosecution might have had of proving the second count of the indictment: that Luther had raped Cher, then killed her to cover up the crime. After two years in a shallow grave in the mountains, Cher's remains carried no physical evidence of rape. At trial there would be only Luther's own comments that he and Cher had engaged in consensual sex and that, after someone else killed her, he had buried her nude body. (In fact, Munch would dismiss this second count for lack of evidence after the prosecution's presentation at trial.)

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