Dead Reckoning

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

Jefferson County Chief Deputy District Attorney Mark Pautler found himself in court this spring, answering charges about his role in the Cody Neal case. "I'm quite comfortable with what I did that night," he said, referring to his decision to pose as a public defender in a phone conversation with Neal. "What I did that night I did to save lives and take a killer off the streets." But the state supreme court's disciplinary committee ruled that Pautler had committed misconduct by engaging in "intentional deception," a violation of the ethical rules for attorneys.

Angela Fite's mother, Betty Von Tersch, sat in on two days of the hearing but wasn't called to testify. "Mark Pautler is a hero," she says. "Who knows what Neal would have done if Pautler had not talked him into surrendering? What would the public defenders be saying if Neal had gone on to kill some other innocent person?"

Pautler has appealed the committee's censure, which put him on probation for a year. Meanwhile, William Neal still doesn't want his lawyers -- even though they're trying to set up another competency hearing for him.

 
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.


"Closure" may be the most overused word in death-penalty circles -- particularly because there is no such thing as closure, not in this lifetime. Steve Bernard likens the repercussions of a murder "to a boulder thrown in a lake, except the ripples go on and on. These families never get over a murder."

Peggy Luiszer hates the word. "There will be closure when I am dead," she says. Four years after her daughter died, she's still unable to return to work; she'd like to go, but it will take an understanding employer to recognize that there are mornings when she'll wake up and know she'll spend the day in tears. She has lost her tolerance for people who whine about how tough things are for them: "Tough is having your daughter raped, tortured and murdered."

There's been no closure for Kerri Gemeinhardt, the sister of Rhonda Maloney. "I miss her every day," she says, seven years after Rhonda's murder. Their mother died shortly after Robert Harlan's sentencing, and while she had been in poor health before Rhonda's death, "I'm sure this is what killed her," Gemeinhardt says. "She never got over it." And although watching Harlan's execution won't bring closure, she notes, "there will be justice."

The families of the killers suffer as well. Not only do they become pariahs in their communities -- guilt by association -- but they must wrestle with the love they feel for someone who has committed such a heinous crime.

Theresa Swinton, the mother of Danny Martinez, attends anti-death-penalty rallies, often with Pancho Martinez's mother. They also see each other on visits to the prison -- although Pancho is on death row and Danny is not. "Those who want the death penalty quote scriptures that say 'an eye for an eye,' but they don't talk about 'Vengeance is mine,'" Swinton says. "I am on my knees every morning. I pray for Brandy and her mother. But I also pray that God will touch this situation and change our society and take away this evil and the anger.

"The system is so fallible. It is riddled with mistakes and injustice. I pray the families on both sides will feel forgiveness, understanding and compassion."

Virginia May's killer, Gary Davis, was executed almost four years ago. But time does not heal all wounds, according to Ginny's father, Rod MacLennan. "It comes and goes," he says. "But the fact that he is dead means I don't have to think about him anymore. People don't ask me about him as much.

"So if not having to think about him sitting over there in the penitentiary is closure, then I guess the death penalty brings closure."

For Pat Tuthill, there is no relief. Few days go by when she doesn't think about Donta Page and what he did to her daughter. It never ends. She'll lose herself in her work or her cause, and then she'll get a call from a reporter or a package from the DA's office, and she'll remember. Everything.

Still, there are moments of poignancy, if not joy. On a recent shopping trip, Peyton's sister picked up a doormat that featured several frogs. "I just love frogs," Cara told her mother. "I wonder why? Guess I'm still looking for my prince." Both laughed as they recalled the time Peyton made her sister kiss a dead frog.

But that was so long ago; these past two years have been a blur. Before Peyton was murdered, Pat was a successful, well-organized professional. Now she forgets to eat. She runs stop signs and red lights without realizing it. She has to work hard not to lose her compassion for people. She's lost her faith in the system, but since it's the only one we have, she's trying to change it.

Pat recently visited a Florida correctional facility for violent youth offenders. She was afraid when she saw them, afraid to look into the faces of young men, some of them barely teenagers, accused of rape and assault. She was afraid, but she grew stronger as she described what had happened to Peyton...and what had happened to Donta Page. Two young people lost their lives that day, she told them.

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