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Shades of Black

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

"Single judges have been stopping death sentences based more on philosophical objections to the death penalty rather than the merits of the case," Powers said. "I need only refer to the Colorado Springs murder of Jacine Gielinski. The young girl was abducted by two killers who took turns raping her before they stabbed and strangled her. After her torturous ordeal came to a fatal end, the two savages exchanged high fives."

Yet the decision of one judge had outweighed the other two on the panel, and Lucas Salmon's life had been spared. Adding insult to injury, the citizens of Colorado would now have to pay millions of dollars "to defend, clothe, house and feed these brutal murderers" over the course of their lives.

Powers's bill was supported by El Paso DA Smith, as well as Peggy Luiszer, who was gearing up for Woldt's trial. She'd felt sorry for the jurors who'd decided Salmon's case; they had seemed "so emotionally distraught and physically run down."

 
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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But another bill was calling for the death-penalty decision to be returned to jurors. "The conscience of the people is better represented by a jury of twelve than a panel of three judges," said state senator Dottie Wham, a Republican from Denver. That measure was supported by the Colorado Bar Association and the Colorado Trial Lawyers Association, as well as the state public defender's office.

Neither bill ended up making it out of committee.

In the meantime, George Woldt was convicted of first-degree murder after deliberation and various other charges.

So in September 2000, a panel of judges -- this time including trial judge Richard Hall and appointed judges Douglas Anderson and Larry Schwartz, all of El Paso County -- convened for the state's seventh death-penalty hearing under the system approved by the legislature in 1995.

This time, prosecutors were not allowed to show their six-minute videotape. Hall ruled that the crime-scene photographs -- which had made Woldt cry when he was shown them in court -- were enough.

Woldt was represented by public defenders Doug Wilson and Terri Brake, who had most recently represented killer Robert Harlan, crying while she delivered opening statements, begging -- futilely, as it turned out -- that his life be spared. Now she and her co-counsel argued that Woldt's life should be spared because he had suffered a brain lesion that had impaired his judgment. He also suffered from an obsessive-compulsive disorder stemming from his abused childhood, they said.

They brought in several experts to testify, including Dr. Jonathan Pincus, a Washington, D.C., neurologist. He said he'd interviewed 150 to 200 convicted murderers, many of them on death row, and found that their crimes involved a combination of three factors: mental illness, physical and/or sexual abuse as a child, and neurological disorder. Woldt had all three, he testified. Pincus had presented much the same evidence at the trial, but jurors later said they didn't believe it. "I thought [the brain-lesion evidence] was a joke," said one.

But here, as at Salmon's death-penalty hearing, the defense attorneys were allowed to introduce "proportionality" evidence. Rather than calling a witness, this time the defense had put together a large book comparing the cases of other men on death row. They argued that Salmon had been the leader in the crime and had inflicted the fatal blows. Since Salmon had received a life sentence, they told the judges, singling Woldt out for a harsher punishment would be unfair.

The prosecution had rebutted the brain-damage and personality-disorder testimony with its own experts. And this time, they were better prepared to counter the proportionality review with a review of their own, demonstrating how both Woldt and his crimes "fit the profile" of other killers on death row. While all the evidence pointed to the men being equally culpable in the crime, "It was Woldt's idea," they argued.

Yet again, Jacine's family members had to recount their loss. Peggy Luiszer, clutching the box containing her daughter's ashes, once again tried to explain to strangers who Jacine had been.

She was as repulsed by the defense attorneys as she had been at Salmon's hearing. They'd had mutual acquaintances try to talk Luiszer out of backing the DA's pursuit of the death penalty for Woldt. That just seemed low to her.

No one seemed to care that her whole world had been turned upside down except the prosecutors, and they were busy trying to win their case. She couldn't bring herself to go back to work, or even to travel alone very far from her home. She couldn't be alone with a man without feeling panic. Even the touch of a loved one gave her the "creeps." When her husband touched her, all she could see was Salmon and Woldt on top of her daughter, doing the things they had done to Jacine. But how could she explain all of that to three judges? And even if she managed, would it matter?

After the defense rested its case, Woldt apologized. The smooth talker, the confidant ladies' man, was gone, and he handled himself with far less dignity than had the friend he'd talked into helping carry out his terrible fantasy. Crying and sniffling, Woldt told the judges that he had become a Christian. If allowed to live, he said, he would "honor God, read the Bible and help others."

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