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Trial and Tribulations, Part Two

This is the conclusion of Joanne Cordova's story. For part one, see www. westword.com.

The trial of Robert Lee Riggan Jr. for the murder of Anita Paley began October 13, 1998. Jefferson County Courtroom 5-C was nearly empty of spectators--a couple of reporters, a few curious court personnel, a private investigator who worked for the defense team. Other than those paid by the state to be at his side, Riggan had no supporters in the gallery. Nor was there a grieving family member weeping behind the prosecution table for Paley; her folks back East had said they couldn't afford to come.

A jury of fourteen, two of them alternates, had been selected to hear the case: four women and ten men. The jurors included a middle-aged homemaker, a young college student, a man who had just retired from the Marine Corps, a systems analyst, a statuesque blonde flight attendant. Although this was a death-penalty case, the jurors were told they would not have to decide Riggan's future if they found him guilty. Instead, a three-judge panel would pass judgment.

(A twist of fate dictated that Riggan might be the first person to go before such a panel. Another Jeffco murder trial that had ended in a conviction a month earlier would have been first, but the Colorado Supreme Court had put that panel on hold.)

Deputy District Attorney Dana Easter opened for the prosecution. A former registered nurse, she'd been selected because of the large amount of expected medical testimony. Tall, soft-spoken, Easter began by noting the "fortuitous" timing of the couple on their way to work spotting Riggan. A few minutes either way, and the murder of Anita Paley would have gone unsolved.

After he was caught, she told the jury, Riggan had come up with "a strange tale" of the young woman jumping from his van, then begging not to be taken to a hospital. But the evidence would show that Paley's death was not accidental, she promised.

Hartley, a short, pugnacious attorney in cowboy boots, began his opening argument: "Ladies and gentlemen, it is my pleasure to represent Robert Riggan." He swept a hand back to indicate his client, dressed in a sweater and slacks, sitting at the defense table. "And it is my pleasure because"--he paused, then lowered his voice almost to a whisper--"he is not guilty."

Riggan had run from the cabin that morning because he had outstanding warrants for theft and forgery back in Iowa, Hartley said, and didn't want to return to prison. He'd developed friendships with prostitutes "because they don't say a lot or ask a lot of questions." Among the prostitutes was Joanne Cordova, "a former Denver police officer who in May 1997 was a hooker addicted to crack cocaine," and Anita Paley, who in the days before her death had become suicidal and "obsessed with religion."

The evidence would show, Hartley told the jury, that Paley's brain showed damage to both sides, which indicated that her moving head had struck an immovable object: the road. And Harley even had an explanation for the cut in her vagina. "These street ladies have an odd habit," he explained. "Gross as it sounds," they carried their extra drugs and money in metal, plastic and glass containers "where if stopped by police it cannot be found"--in their "vaginal vaults."

Paley's death, he concluded, was nothing more than "an unfortunate suicide."
The prosecution's case began with Johnson and Sosebe, moving swiftly through the police officers, trauma surgeons and Galloway. Shane Delray made a brief appearance. He hadn't kicked Anita, he said, and had never known her to use a "vaginal vault."

Then came the witness that court-watchers had been waiting for. The cop-turned-hooker.

"The people call Joanne Cordova," Easter announced.

The girls who worked Colfax Avenue rarely stayed around long. They were always talking about going somewhere better...another city...back home. Even though she knew what had happened to Anita Paley, for Joanne it was as though she had simply gone out the door one day and not come back. She knew Anita was dead but didn't feel it.

Not until the day she was taken to the cabin by Jeffco investigators.
They'd gone up the path to the place where Riggan had left Joanne alone that day and were walking back down along the stream when Joanne noticed a white cross with a bouquet of flowers next to a tree. She thought it was the sort of thing a child might have erected over the grave of a pet.

She was surprised when an investigator suddenly knelt before the cross and bowed his head. "What is that?" she asked.

"Didn't you know?" he replied. "This is where we found her."
That's when it hit. Anita's not gone...she's dead. Joanne burst into tears. She was crying for Anita, but she was also crying because she knew that she could have easily been that body by the tree. Who'd care if a crack-addicted prostitute died--except another hooker?

Joanne had told Anita she'd owe her forever if she retrieved her clothes. Now she figured she owed it to Anita to clean up her life.

Joanne moved into a shelter that offered counseling as well as three square meals a day and a safe place to sleep. In exchange, she had to quit drugs and prostitution. The prostitution was easy, but crack was another matter.

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