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Dead Reckoning

Donta Page's sentence revives Colorado's death-penalty debate -- but brings no closure. The Conclusion of "Penalty Zone."

But still, Jackson confessed, he "hesitated on the brink of casting that vote, not because of any one mitigating factor, but because of the combination of those factors." Therefore, he had voted against the death penalty.

"There will be those who, understandably, will be frustrated by the outcome," he acknowledged. "At least this decision should bring the case to an end...I hope the end of the case will bring Peyton's family and friends some measure of peace and closure. The penalty we impose today is very severe and in some ways even worse than death."


 
Michael Hogue
 
Pat Tuthill carried this picture of her daughter Peyton to the trial and death-penalty hearing of Peyton's murderer, Donta Page.
Pat Tuthill carried this picture of her daughter Peyton to the trial and death-penalty hearing of Peyton's murderer, Donta Page.

The judges' decision did not bring peace to the friends and family of Peyton Tuthill.

"Who our daughter was did not seem very important in court," Pat Tuthill said.

Steve Tuthill called the judges' decision as "cowardly" as Donta Page's crimes against his daughter. "It was a travesty of justice," he told the Denver Post. "This beautiful child wasn't murdered, she was slaughtered."

The night the judges issued their verdict, Jim Castle and his wife attended a candlelight vigil on the grounds of the State Capitol. The trial and hearing had been every bit as bad as Castle had expected them to be -- maybe worse. So when Coloradans Against the Death Penalty had called to ask if he minded if they scheduled a vigil for after the sentencing, he gave his okay, on one condition: "that the vigil be for the life of Donta Page and an end to capital punishment, but also to pray for the victim and the family of the victim, Peyton Tuthill." He reiterated those words at the vigil.

"All of us here have something in common," Castle said. "We detest and believe immoral the death penalty. But we need to ask ourselves why our country strives for the death penalty. What need does it fill? It fills the need to do something about crime and the agony of the victims. So unless we address that problem, we will always have a death penalty."

But a newspaper picture the next day of Castle's wife, in tears, cast the vigil in a different light for Pat Tuthill.

Where are the tears for Peyton? she wondered. And her curiosity grew as she read that the gathering had turned into a rally against the impending execution of Timothy McVeigh, who'd killed 168 men, women and children when he set off a bomb in Oklahoma City. She noticed that Robert Welch, whose daughter had died in the bombing, had appeared at the rally; Welch had been in favor of the death penalty until he met McVeigh's father and had a change of heart.

Pat wasn't sure how she felt about the death penalty. "But one thing happened to me," she told the Post, "and it has committed me more than ever to redefining 'heinous' for our society...I will still continue to fight for her and fight for justice throughout this country."

In the days that followed, the judges' decision inspired yet another death-penalty debate at the legislature. They had done what no jury had ever done, what no jury could have done -- and that was create a ranking of murderers.

Defense lawyers, who'd complained in 1995 when the death-penalty decision was taken away from juries, now praised these judges. "I think they have given us a road map for how to search for justice in a death-penalty case," Larry Pozner told the Post. "These judges have come up with the mechanism, the procedure. They have given us the book on what to do if you want to try to figure out who is going to be executed and who is going to go to prison for life."

District attorneys, however, slammed the judges' procedure as nothing more than smoke and mirrors, with no legal basis. Even prosecutor turned defense lawyer Craig Silverman said the decision set a "disastrous precedent...in effect, [prosecutors] will be trying seven or eight cases at the same time."

Adams County District Attorney Bob Grant complained that the danger of proportionality reviews was that only "twins" of the type of cases already on death row stood a chance of adding to the inmates there. "It would completely eviscerate the law," he said.

According to Denver DA Bill Ritter, in most "weighing" states with a death-penalty statute, where the aggravators must outweigh the mitigators, Page would have been sentenced to death. Still, he said he didn't feel that the Page decision would be as far-reaching as defense lawyers hoped or his district-attorney colleagues feared. After all, Meyer and Anderson had said that a proportionality review, while permitted, was not mandatory, and Jackson hadn't determined that Page fell "below the bar" separating the men on death row from other killers. Other prosecutors pinned their hopes on a higher court banning proportionality reviews.

But state senator Ken Chlouber, a Republican from Leadville, wasn't taking any chances. Shortly after Page's sentencing, he introduced a bill that would change Colorado's death-penalty system, replacing the three-judge panel with a single judge, the trial judge.

Chlouber was more familiar with the death penalty than most lawmakers, having recently witnessed the Kansas execution of his elderly aunt's killer. And he was "disgusted" with the panel's decision to spare Page's life. "The public was outraged, and that's an understatement," he said. "There's nothing I can do about that case, but we can do something about the next trial."

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