Dead Reckoning

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

But mostly Page had grown up surrounded by violence on the streets, sometimes sleeping in abandoned buildings to avoid the abuse at home. He'd been shot once and had seen two of his teenaged friends killed, but he'd also been an active participant in the violence. In 1996, during a convenience-store robbery, he'd punched a female clerk and then struck her on the head with the butt end of a large knife, threatening to kill her. The assault ended when a customer entered the store and Page fled. But the police caught up with him, and in November of that year, he was convicted of aggravated robbery and burglary and sentenced to ten years with the Maryland Department of Corrections.

In the fall of 1998, a Maryland judge reconsidered his sentence and let Page out of jail on probation, on the condition that he enroll in a drug and alcohol rehabilitation program. The Maryland probation department allowed him to seek treatment at the Stout Street Foundation in Denver -- but failed to notify Colorado authorities of the state's new resident, as required by an interstate compact.

Page didn't last long at Stout Street, where other residents complained that he assaulted them physically and sexually. On February 23, 1999, after only half a year with the program, he was kicked out. Put out on the street with no money, Page was told he could return the next day to pick up his personal belongings and a one-way ticket back to Maryland. That night, as he strolled along Colfax Avenue with a friend who'd also left Stout Street, Page pointed out a pharmacy where he'd robbed a customer at gunpoint.

The next morning, Page returned to Stout Street, where officials told him he could get a ride to the bus station at 1:30 p.m. With a couple of hours to spare, Page decided to make use of his time. Earlier, he'd seen a young woman leave a duplex a couple of houses away; now he headed over there to burgle the home.

Page first tried to get in through a basement window. When that didn't work, he used his massive body to break down the back door. In the kitchen, he helped himself to a bottle of beer, wrapping a paper towel around the bottle to avoid leaving fingerprints. He then grabbed a knife, also wrapping its handle in a towel. He was standing near the back door when he heard the young woman return.

After her interview at the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation -- she'd gotten the position on the spot -- Peyton wanted to change her clothes and let Maggie out of the upstairs bedroom before she went off to her temporary job. She parked in front of the duplex, went in the front door, headed for the stairs and saw him: a huge black man brandishing a kitchen knife and demanding to know where she kept her money.

She screamed and ran up the stairs, with Page in pursuit. He caught her at the top, punching her several times in the face and striking her on the head with the butt end of the knife, opening a deep cut. Peyton fought back, warding off slashes from the knife with her hands, screaming for help. Her blood spattered the walls, railing and floor. But at half his size, she was no match for her attacker. A dog was barking frantically behind one closed door, so Page pulled her into another bedroom.

What happened next will never be known for sure. At some point, Page tied Peyton's hands together with the cord to an iron. He again demanded to know where she kept her money and she told him in her purse, outside in the car. He took her keys and went out to the car, then returned to find that Peyton had worked free from her bonds. She was coming down the stairs when she saw him return, and ran back to the bedroom. There was no way out.

Either before going to the car or after returning -- or both -- Page raped Peyton. He tore her blouse off, leaving her bra, and yanked off her pants and panties without bothering to remove her shoes. He raped her on the bed, her bloodied head banging up against the walls in the corner. He raped her vaginally, and he raped her anally. Her blood dripped down the walls and down the side of the sheet as she screamed.

To silence her and to eliminate the only witness to what he had done, Page pulled Peyton into a sitting position on the edge of the bed and slit her throat -- a wide, gaping wound that gushed blood. But still she screamed.

Perhaps this was when Peyton received the terrible cuts to her hands that severed the webbing between her forefingers and thumbs. Perhaps, investigators would later surmise, she grabbed for the knife as he plunged it twice into her chest.

Mortally wounded, Peyton stood, or was pulled up, and her tormentor stabbed her twice again. The blade plunged in as deep as eight inches; two of the four wounds cut through major blood vessels around her heart and into the heart itself. She staggered a step or two toward the corner of the room, where she collapsed. It could have taken as long as a minute, each second representing another beat of her heart, for Peyton to die and the horror of what had happened to fade with her consciousness.

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