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A Fight to the Death

Frank Rodriguez was sentenced to die twelve years ago. Are we there yet?

In December 1985 a jury found Chris guilty of kidnapping, rape, robbery and first-degree murder. At the time, state law required that juries in capital cases sit through a second, penalty-phase trial to determine whether the defendant should live or die. The verdict had to be unanimous for a convicted killer to be put to death. (Under a state law passed in 1995, a three-judge panel now decides the defendant's fate in capital cases.)

In arguing that the life of his client should be spared, defense attorney Ken Gordon, now a state representative from Denver, said it was "undisputed" that Frank was the one who'd actually wielded the knife and killed Martelli. The jury split on the death penalty: reportedly, ten jurors voted for death, but the other two held out, sparing Chris's life. He was sentenced to life in prison plus 64 years. In practical terms, that means he could be released when he is 77 years old.

Frank Rodriguez went to trial almost exactly one year later, in December 1986. The public defender's office came into the case with a long track record of keeping clients from the gas chamber. Its attorneys also had plenty of ammunition against star prosecution witness Patricia Thomas, who, they claimed, had lied about the identity of the murderer in order to protect her boyfriend, David Martinez.

But the defense also faced what would prove to be an insurmountable obstacle: Frank's letters to Margie Marquez, in which he admitted to killing Martelli.

Prosecutors introduced at trial a letter Frank wrote to Marquez. "I had to kill her," he wrote in the letter, mailed from the Denver County Jail and riddled with grammatical errors. "If I wouldn't have killed her, she would of pick my picture out of the mug book's from the cop's.

"The only reson I'am sorry now," Frank continued, "is because the hurt I have done to you. I do'nt care about Martelli or her people but I do care about what you think about me. I love you women and do'nt want to loss you over some white people."

Frank's attorneys argued that the letter was a ploy--that even though he hadn't been convicted at the time, Frank had made the confession with the full understanding that his girlfriend would pass it on to authorities. The idea, the attorneys argued, was to give Marquez a bargaining chip she could use to get out of jail on a shoplifting charge.

The defense never fully explained why someone as streetwise as Frank Rodriguez would put his life in jeopardy as part of a scheme to spring another person--girlfriend or not--on a shoplifting charge. And prosecutors Mike Little and Craig Silverman seized on the letters, using them to demonstrate what they referred to as Rodriguez's "totally unrepentant" attitude.

After just four hours of deliberation, the jury found Frank guilty on all counts, a legal fusillade that included first-degree murder, first-degree felony murder, first-degree sexual assault, aggravated motor-vehicle theft, second-degree kidnapping, aggravated robbery, conspiracy to commit second-degree kidnapping and conspiracy to commit car theft. In a separate proceeding, the jury also found him guilty of being a habitual criminal.

During the penalty phase that followed, the prosecution called to the witness stand the woman who'd been raped by the Rodriguez brothers in 1978 and whose testimony had sent them to prison. Additional chilling information was provided by George Stapleton, who told jurors that just ten days before Martelli was killed, Frank shot him four times during an attempted robbery.

As part of their argument, Frank's attorneys introduced into evidence a document they'd titled "The Life History of Frank Rodriguez." Compiled by an investigator with the public defender's office and composed largely of mate-rial gleaned from the Department of Corrections, the Denver Department of Social Services and the state parole board, it didn't exactly show their client in the best light, referring frequently to his lengthy criminal history.

Defense attorney David Lane now argues that "the defense case at the penalty phase was breathtaking in its inadequacy." In fact, prosecutor Silverman was able to turn the "Life History" into a condemnation of Frank Rodriguez during the prosecution's closing argument.

"We have read the book of 'The Life of Frank Rodriguez,'" Silverman told the jury. "The People submit it's a book of murder and cold-blooded violence against completely innocent citizens of Denver. The book goes on for year after year. The book never gets better; [it is] more and more of the same thing, chapter after chapter, and despite society's efforts, it just keeps getting worse.

"It's the sort of book where, once you read enough, you get sick of it," Silverman continued. "Let's make sure this is the final chapter, ladies and gentlemen. Let's close the book on Frank Rodriguez. Return a verdict of death."

It took only six hours for the jury to conclude that Frank Rodriguez deserved to die in the gas chamber. When the verdict was read, Martelli's family--her brother, Jim, and her two sisters, Antoinette Massimino and Virginia Ross--cried and embraced. Courtroom reporters claimed that Frank showed no emotion. But as his mother, Gloria Rodriguez, turned to leave the courtroom, Frank smiled and winked at her. "I love you, Mom," he said.

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