Murderers' Row

Until two years ago, Colorado juries weighed whether men deserved to die. Now judges decide their fate.

After they drove to a public-housing area, Frank got out of the car and went into an apartment to buy pot with Martelli's money. While Frank was in the building, Chris raped Martelli.

Violence was nothing new for the Rodriguez brothers. In 1978, they and a cousin had abducted "Judy," a young mother who'd gone outside to warm up her car. For several hours, the trio had taken turns raping Judy vaginally and anally. They'd considered killing her, then finally let her go in a warehouse area along the Platte River. After warning her that they'd kill her and her baby if she told anyone, the threesome took off. But Judy did tell, and the cousins were arrested and convicted.

At the time of the Martelli kidnapping, the brothers had only recently been released from jail. Now they were back to their old tricks. After Frank returned with the pot, they headed to the mountains, with Frank driving, and discussed what to do with "the lady." When Martelli asked what was going to happen, younger brother Chris told her they'd probably let her go. But Frank said no, she'd seen their faces; they couldn't release her. He didn't want to go back to prison.

Nathan Dunlap is also among the six prisoners waiting on Colorado's death row.
Nathan Dunlap is also among the six prisoners waiting on Colorado's death row.


Read more Westword coverage of Colorado's death penalty in Penalty Zone

They ended up driving back to Denver, close to the spot where they'd let Judy go a half-dozen years before. Frank got out of the driver's seat, saying it was his turn to "have my thrill" with Martelli. While the other three waited outside the car, he assaulted her. When Chris complained that he was taking too long, Frank interrupted his "thrill" long enough to get out and hit his brother, then returned to his victim, whom he raped repeatedly.

Finally, Chris got in the car and began to drive, but he only got about twenty yards when Frank started torturing Martelli with a knife. Dragged from the car, she pleaded for her life. Frank replied that she was stupid and continued stabbing her -- she had a total of 28 wounds -- until she died. The three men then tossed Martelli's body into the trunk of the car, and they all drove to another apartment building to visit the Rodriguez brothers' girlfriends. When the killers were caught several hours later, the body was still in the trunk of the car.

Martinez pleaded guilty to second-degree kidnapping and received a twenty-year sentence. Thomas was given immunity in exchange for her testimony against the Rodriguezes, who'd been charged with first-degree murder after deliberation and first-degree felony murder as well as first-degree sexual assault and kidnapping.

Denver District Attorney Norm Early announced that his office would seek the death penalty for both brothers. Chief Deputy District Attorney Mike Little, who'd prosecuted the Rodriguez brothers for the 1978 rape, would prosecute both cases.

In 1986, Chris Rodriguez went first. The prosecution held that the younger brother was a "principal" in the felony murder; for the count of first-degree murder after deliberation, however, he was charged and convicted as a "complicitor," under the legal theory that while he didn't wield the knife that killed Martelli, his actions leading up to the murder made him equally culpable. He was convicted of all charges.

At the death-penalty hearing, the prosecution's aggravators included the claim that Martelli had been killed to eliminate the witness to a crime (her rape and kidnapping), and that the murder had been particularly "heinous, cruel and depraved." Little supplemented the facts of Martelli's torment and death with testimony from Judy, as well as from a man who'd miraculously survived after being shot four times in the head by the brothers just days before they killed Martelli.

The jurors agreed that the prosecution had proved its aggravating factors, and they felt that the aggravators outweighed the mitigators. But they balked at the fourth step. The fact that he had not stabbed Martelli saved Chris Rodriguez from a death sentence; instead, he was sentenced to spend the rest of his life in jail.

Frank Rodriguez went on trial almost a year later; this time, Little was joined by Deputy District Attorney Craig Silverman. The jury quickly found Frank guilty of all of the charges.

At his sentencing hearing, the defense presented a fifty-page exhibit put together by one of its investigators detailing the rough childhood of Frank Rodriguez: son of a convict, a child growing up in a violent neighborhood. The defense also argued that it was Chris who started the chain of events that ended with Martelli's murder.

But the defense attorneys couldn't get around the fact that it was Frank Rodriguez who'd wielded the knife. A jury sentenced him to death on January 28, 1987, and Frank Rodriguez was sent to death row.

He didn't have long to wait for company.

On July 21, 1986, Virginia May, 33, was living with her husband and two young children, a boy and a girl, on a ranch about 25 miles north of Byers. A slender, pretty woman, "Ginny" was tougher than she looked, having been raised on her parents' ranch.

Even after his daughter married, Rod MacLennan knew that if he needed a hand at his place, all he had to do was ask Ginny May. She'd stop working in her much-loved flower and vegetable gardens or turn off the computer, where she was going over cattle records, and pitch in. Like many farm people who have to rely on their neighbors in times of need, she was friendly and trusting.

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