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A Trust Betrayed

Ashley Gray didn't take candy from strangers. She did from her "Uncle Jon."

Capital punishment cases are always fought aggressively in Colorado, but the legal battle to save Jon Morris turned nasty early on.

The 38-year-old Morris's life will be on the line when he goes to trial in Denver on March 3 for the 1995 rape and murder of five-year-old Ashley Gray. Already the state public defender's office has filed hundreds of pre-trial motions, some of which contain personal attacks on Denver District Attorney Bill Ritter, accusing him and his employees of playing political games and harboring hidden agendas.

The legal blitz isn't a surprise. Defense attorneys are still appealing Denver's most notorious death-penalty case more than ten years after Frank Rodriguez was convicted of the torture-murder of 54-year-old bookkeeper Lorraine Martelli. If history repeats itself, Morris's defense attorneys will use everything at their disposal to keep their client alive. In the Rodriguez case, that has meant extensive testimony about the alleged childhood abuse suffered by a man who as an adult savagely raped Martelli before stabbing her and stuffing her into the trunk of her car. In the Morris case, it may well mean an all-out assault on the less-than-wholesome lifestyle of Ashley Gray's parents, Paul and Sharon Gray, whose four school-aged children and a grandson were taken away by social workers following Ashley's death.

Denver prosecutors will most likely focus on the brutal nature of Ashley Gray's death, forcing the jury to envision a young girl left naked and mutilated in a dumpster by a crack-smoking thief she had been told was her friend. The DA's office also hopes to introduce evidence suggesting that Morris deserves death because he committed other heinous acts before he took his moonlight walk with Ashley Gray. If he is convicted of Gray's murder, prosecutors plan to call witnesses who could link Morris to the 1995 deaths of two Denver women.

The legal maneuvering in the Morris case is taking place against a background of political uncertainty and debate over the death penalty. And Morris's trial will be precedent-setting on two fronts. It will be the first held under a new state statute that places the decision of whether to condemn a defendant with a three-judge panel instead of with a jury. It also is the state's first capital case to be tried under a new law designed to streamline the handling of cases involving an insanity defense.

While the public has repeatedly and overwhelmingly voiced approval of capital punishment and the Colorado legislature is even now considering measures to shorten the appeals process in death-penalty cases, the American Bar Association earlier this month called for a temporary halt to executions. Until the process is administered more fairly, ABA officials announced, there should be a moratorium on carrying out the ultimate punishment.

The ABA's proclamation is likely to spark a new round of arguments, but it carries no legal weight. That means Denver's two death-penalty cases will continue to move ahead, inching slowly toward the day when Rodriguez and, perhaps, Morris may be strapped to a gurney at the Colorado State Penitentiary in Canon City and poisoned to death.

In this first of a special Westword series on Denver's capital crimes, Karen Bowers examines the forthcoming Morris trial. At its core, the case is about crack: what the drug did to Morris, what it did to Ashley Gray's family, and how a kindergartner's fate became inextricably bound up with pushers and users and little rocks of cocaine.

"They're okay," says Paul Gray, indicating with a jerk of his head a trio of seedy-looking men who wait for him beside a dirt-packed front yard in Denver's Five Points neighborhood. "They're family."

Family? Even George, the white guy with the long, blond hair and dirty orange knit Broncos cap? "Yeah," says Gray. "He's family, too."

To Gray, "family" is an elastic concept, expanding and contracting to include friends, friends' kids, neighbors, drinking companions and mere acquaintances. He also counts among his family the homeless men and women he allows to sleep on his floor, in chairs, or wherever they can find room to stretch out. Back before his daughter Ashley was killed, and before Paul and his wife, Sharon, were evicted from their place on Stout Street, there were sometimes a dozen or more people living with them in the three-bedroom duplex. They survived by pooling food stamps, disability checks and whatever groceries they could scrounge from food banks and soup kitchens.

Jon Morris, too, was a member of the ever-evolving Gray family, living with the Grays on and off for six years. Paul and Sharon's five children--sixteen-year-old Paulette, twelve-year-old twins Paul Jr. and Paula, Jasmine, ten, and Ashley, the youngest--called him "Uncle Jon."

The three men loitering on the street corner this morning--Paul Gray's friend George McDaniel, a second individual who introduces himself as "Candyman" and a third who doesn't introduce himself at all--also were sometime residents of the Stout Street duplex and still stay with the Grays on occasion.

"Paul is so kindhearted," McDaniel says. "We take care of one another."
Paul Gray's generosity seemingly has few limits. After securing from a visitor the promise of a ride to the Safeway store for himself, he invites his three buddies to accompany him. They gratefully crowd into the backseat of the car, filling it with the odor of stale alcohol. "Can't smoke in here, you ass-wipe," Gray tells McDaniel, who sloughs off the insult and tosses his cigarette butt into the street.

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