A Fight to the Death

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

One night, when the boys were about ten, Lane wrote, Frank and Chris tried to protect their mother from Frank Sr. by grabbing kitchen knives and threatening their old man. Frank Sr. laughed at the impudence of the "frightened, skinny boys," Lane wrote. Then Frank Sr. allegedly turned on his namesake and hit the boy so hard that "Frank's nose to this day carries the crooked reminder of that blow." As if that weren't enough, Frank Sr. then supposedly made the boys stand in the bathtub, which was part of a cruel ritual. He'd put them in the tub, Lane wrote, because he didn't want them to bleed all over the apartment after he'd whip them with cords.

And Lane's claims of abuse don't stop at beatings and threats. The attorney makes even more disturbing allegations, claiming that Frank Sr. raped Frank Jr. and Chris on numerous occasions and that by the time Frank Jr. was eight or nine, his father had injected the boy with heroin and recruited him and Chris to act as lookouts when he committed burglaries.

The boys hated and feared their father so much, Lane wrote in his petition, that "they would lie in bed at night fervently praying to Jesus" that their father would die, that he'd be struck by a bus or shot or that "some divine intervention would occur and their lives would no longer be an unimaginable nightmare."

Lane claims that Frank Jr.'s only protector at the time, and the only person he cared about, was his mother, Gloria. Frank Sr. managed to destroy that source of comfort, too. "Frank Sr. would begin to beat his wife, who would then beg for mercy," Lane writes. "Mercy was frequently given to her, but only at a cost. The cost of mercy was that she would be ordered by Frank Sr. to commence beating Frank Jr.

"In order to spare herself, Frank's mother would rain blows down on Frank with belts, electrical cords, or whatever was at hand. If she didn't beat Frank hard enough, she would be beaten harder. Frank could not understand, or stand the fact, that the one protector he had in the world would not or could not protect him from an existence of the rawest brutality imaginable."

Because of this horrific mistreatment, Lane claimed in his petition, Frank Jr. grew up with a terrible rage. And on November 14, 1984, Lane told the court, that rage exploded. Lorraine Martelli, he wrote, "was the completely innocent victim of a lifetime fireball of rage" that had been bottled up in Frank Rodriguez. "It exploded in a frenzy which Frank Rodriguez to this day cannot explain," wrote the attorney. "He does not know how or why it happened. He simply recalls a feeling of absolutely overpowering anger and rage, the likes of which he had not previously felt."

Lane's argument doesn't address the fact that during his allegedly overpowering rage directed at Martelli, Frank remained coherent enough to make the very logical argument that she needed to be killed to keep her from talking. And judging from the lengthy rap sheet Rodriguez had compiled before the attack on Martelli, rages were not an anomaly for him.

However, Lane argues that if Frank's public defenders had told a similar story to the jury in the murder trial, jurors may have been moved to spare his life. When jurors recalled Frank threatening Lorraine Martelli with a knife and calling her stupid, Lane suggests, that memory would have been overlaid by the imagery of Frank cowering from his father's cruel taunts and being threatened by a machete.

Lane says his version of Rodriguez's childhood has been largely verified by Frank's other brother, Kenny, who still lives in the Denver area. But Rodriguez's parents, both of whom died after he was on death row, never came forward with accounts of abuse. Nor did Chris bring up abuse as a mitigating factor in his own case.

Lane is aware that his arguments may be regarded dubiously by the public and the courts. "The knee-jerk response to this may well be, 'Oh sure, he's the source of this information and he's simply conning people into believing this stuff,'" the attorney wrote in a footnote to the habeus corpus petition. Lane, though, says he believes it.

And Silverman believes it to a certain extent, too. "Did his upbringing screw him up?" Silverman asks. "I'm sure it did. But Frank Rodriguez was well into his thirties, and he'd been in prison several times [prior to murdering Martelli]. He was very far removed from his upbringing."

Public sentiment about the death penalty hasn't changed much in the years since Frank Rodriguez was first sentenced to die. The public still approves of it, and elected officials still use it as a political tool. But as fear of crime has increased and public indignation has risen over the lengthy delays that characterize capital cases, new life has been breathed into the debate over capital punishment. And the posturing and legal maneuvering has had a major effect on the administration of capital cases in Colorado.

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