Shades of Black

Defense attorneys fight to save their clients by comparing them to current residents of death row.

That's what he'd tried to do with Frank Vigil, his first client tried for first-degree murder. It wasn't a death-penalty case -- although two of Vigil's co-defendants, Danny Martinez and Francisco "Pancho" Martinez, had faced the panels -- but he'd still felt the weight of having the young man's life in his hands. It hadn't been easy talking with Vigil's mother, knowing that he couldn't offer much hope that she'd ever have her son, then only seventeen, back home again. And it wasn't easy trying to explain his client's role in the crime while fourteen-year-old Brandy DuVall's family was sitting in court, listening to every word.

Now he had to stand by while Neal refused to do anything to help himself. Canney believed that Neal was insane and had been when he'd committed the crimes. Just days before the death-penalty hearing was scheduled to begin, the attorney appealed to Judge Woodford, requesting that Neal be tested again for mental competency. At the hearing, Canney even called Neal's sister, Sharon, the one family member still talking to him, who over a speaker phone testified that her brother would go "from being rational to incoherent in the same conversation" and talked about being "a prophet of God." But Woodford denied Canney's motions, saying Neal had showed no signs of mental disease in any of his multiple court appearances.

So on September 20, 1999, William Lee "Cody" Neal shuffled into the courtroom in the standard-issue Halloween-orange jumpsuit, white T-shirt and socks, and blue slippers. Hunched over as he waited for the deputy to unlock the handcuffs behind him, he glanced at the spectator gallery.

 
Michael Hogue
 
Jacine Gielinski, a star athlete at Littleton High School, was murdered at age 22 by George Woldt and Lucas Salmon.
Jacine Gielinski, a star athlete at Littleton High School, was murdered at age 22 by George Woldt and Lucas Salmon.

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Read more Westword coverage of the Colorado Death Penalty in The Penalty Zone

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If looks could kill, Neal would have crumpled immediately to the floor. The families and friends of his victims filled three rows behind the prosecution table and even spilled over to the other side. The one victim who'd survived his rampage, a pretty, young blonde, leaned against her mother's protective shoulder.

There wasn't enough space in the courtroom for everyone who wanted to watch the hearing. The victims' friends and families had been seated first. The first row on the other side, immediately behind the defense table, was kept clear by the deputies in charge of court security -- as much for Neal's safety as anything else. The second row was reserved for Neal's family, of which no members were present, as well as Neal's supporters, of which there were few, and associates and colleagues of the defense counsel, including Jim Aber, the chief deputy state public defender.

Neal sat down next to Canney, his advisory counsel. In front of him on the defense table were arranged a dictionary, yellow legal pads for notes, a neat row of pens and a television monitor.

Those assembled in the courtroom rose as the three judges -- Jefferson County presiding judge Thomas Woodford and Frank Martinez and William Meyer, both from Denver -- entered and took their seats at the enlarged dais built just for death-penalty hearings. In the preceding five months, Jefferson County had already had three such hearings. First had come Robert Lee Riggan Jr., who'd been spared in April. Then Daniel "Bang" Martinez Jr., who had been spared in May. In June, at the third hearing, Francisco "Pancho" Martinez Jr. had been sentenced to death. Few in the courtroom expected Neal to escape the same fate.

Now Chief Deputy District Attorney Charles Tingle rose to deliver the prosecution's opening statements. At the table behind him were Deputy District Attorney Chris Bachmeyer and the lead investigator in the case, Jose Aceves.

Rebecca Holberton, Candace Walters and Angela Fite were all vulnerable in one way or another, Tingle began, "in search of happiness, and he preyed upon each one of them. He promised to rescue them emotionally and financially. But he was a phony. A master manipulator...and he sucked them in with his lies and deceit."

Since there had been no trial, Neal's case hadn't been as physically demanding as some -- but it had involved a lot more than Tingle's regular duties. He'd had more contact with Neal than anyone except for Aceves. As a pro se defendant, Neal had the right to discuss legal matters with the prosecutor, and he took full advantage of his cell-phone privileges, calling Tingle four or five times a week. To keep things running smoothly -- and to stave off potential appeals -- Tingle had made sure that Neal's requests were met.

In his fifteen years as a prosecutor, the forty-year-old Tingle had never run into anyone like Neal. The defendant was extremely intelligent, at least in his niche as a pathological liar and sociopath. He was also very meticulous, putting together a stack of case law regarding the death penalty in the United States that was eighteen inches thick. From their conversations, it was clear that Neal had read every page of it, as well as the thousands and thousands of pages of discovery. And if there was something he couldn't read or a clarification he needed, Neal would stay after Tingle until he got what he wanted. The day before the hearing, Neal had reminded him that there were several outstanding telephone bills for calls he'd made to his sister, Sharon, and two friends.

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