This Boy's Life

Joshua Beckius was only sixteen when he accepted a plea bargain for a crime he now says he didn't commit. Will the court let him take his case to trial?

Furman probably knew that the District Attorney's Office was unlikely to leave Beckius's deal on the table for long. In addition, Pa was talking to his lawyer about a plea and insisting that Beckius was the killer. Though no one really believed him, the justice system favors the defendant who pleads first and whose testimony can be used against others.

Tim Beckius and Carrie Milici say they felt pressured into acceding to the plea deal for Josh. They found Furman difficult to understand, and say he tended to talk over their heads. "Everything was happening so fast," Tim says.

In his motion asking for a new hearing, Beckius claimed Furman pressed hard for a plea agreement at their first meeting on March 8, 1995, even though Beckius was denying guilt and Furman himself had seen none of the evidence other than the 23-page arrest warrant. Because prosecutor Pete Hofstrom and two police detectives accompanied Furman to that meeting and were waiting outside the door, Beckius said, he felt his attorney was more interested in helping the prosecution than in helping him.

On March 12, Furman picked up the first 425 of over 2,000 pages of discovery in the case. He obtained another 200 pages on March 15 -- the same day Beckius broke down and accepted the plea.

Although Beckius had already agreed to the plea, Furman continued to review evidence. On April 10, he wrote to Hofstrom asking for, among other things, the addresses of several witnesses, as "I need to assure my client that you folks are serious about getting these people in, if necessary, to testify against him." Furman had considered getting an investigator, he added, but "thought I could avoid some delay by going through you."

He concluded: "I told you this morning that I did not think there would be a problem with proceeding on April 17 with the disposition. As I review this letter, I am not quite so sure. I'll assure you again that I believe we are still on track. I want to avoid any claim of ineffective assistance as much or more than you, and the fact is that we are still moving this case along at good speed."

The unusual chumminess that seems to exist between Boulder's defense establishment and the District Attorney's Office has often been noted ("He Aims to Plea," September 23, 1998). Generally, it works in favor of suspects and defendants. But it did not work in Josh Beckius's favor. He formally pled guilty to second-degree murder on April 21, a month and a half after first meeting his attorney. The sentence was open-ended -- anywhere from sixteen to 48 years.

Once he had agreed to the plea, Beckius cooperated fully. He wrote remorseful letters to James's daughters in which he described the crime. He said that he had stayed in the lobby by the ticket stand while Charlie Pa went into James's office. "Before I knew it I heard two shots being fired," he wrote. "That's when I ran." He showed he understood the concept of felony murder: "Since I took part in the armed robbery that ended in the death of your father I am at fault as much as the man that actually pulled the trigger." And he sounded a note of what appeared to be genuine contrition: "I didn't mean for anyone to get hurt. I know how it is to lose your loved ones..."

In May, a gaping hole appeared in the prosecution's case. Pete Hofstrom discovered that Sheldon Rosentreader -- one of the chief witnesses who put Beckius on the scene -- had been in Larimer County Jail on April 26, 1993, the night of the murder.

Still, the wheels of justice were relentlessly turning. Beckius had not only accepted the plea, he had taken responsibility for his act, confessed to a probation officer and written his contrite letters to the victim's family. On June 23, 1995, he was sentenced as an adult to forty years in prison. (Later that summer Pa, who'd accepted the same plea, received 48.) In issuing the sentence, Boulder District Judge Richard McLean pointed out that even though Beckius hadn't actually shot Dayton James, he had agreed to the robbery and accompanied Charlie Pa into the movie house, knowing that Pa was, in the judge's own words, a "vicious SOB." And after the crime, McLean noted, Beckius had continued to break the law.

Cindy Nick, a chaplain with the Denver area Youth for Christ, counseled Beckius through the entire legal process. He was desperately upset after his first meeting with Furman, she remembers: "He didn't know what to do. Taking a plea would mean he would be admitting to something he didn't feel was accurate. But it would mean he got a less strong sentence." Nick calmed Beckius down and encouraged him to stick to the truth and go to trial. He seemed at peace when he left her, she says.

But when she saw him a week later, he was in tears. "He said he had taken the plea bargain and felt he had done the wrong thing," she remembers. "All I could do at that point was console him...But to see him so devastated -- 'Oh, I've ruined my life. I should have tried.'"

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