Dead Reckoning

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


Donta Page's trial began November 3, 2000, in front of Denver District Court Judge Joseph Meyer III. Pat and Steve Tuthill and other family members and friends of Peyton sat in front, behind the prosecution's table, in the row reserved for the victim. There was no shielding Pat Tuthill as they listened to Deputy District Attorney Henry Cooper deliver his opening statements with a blow-by-blow account of what Page had done to Peyton.

The defendant, Cooper said, "violated Peyton Tuthill in every way a human can...motivated by his lust for violence." Then he'd calmly washed his clothes, gathered items he wanted to steal, disposed of the evidence and things he didn't want, and walked back to Stout Street to wait for his ride.

A jury sentenced Frank Rodriguez to death in 1987 for the murder of 54-year-old Lorraine Martelli.
A jury sentenced Frank Rodriguez to death in 1987 for the murder of 54-year-old Lorraine Martelli.
Gary Davis, executed in 1997, was the first man killed by the state in thirty years.
Gary Davis, executed in 1997, was the first man killed by the state in thirty years.

Details

Read all the stories in this series at our Penalty Zone website.

Page had confessed that he slashed Peyton's throat "because he didn't like her screaming," said Cooper. "He killed Peyton Tuthill so he wouldn't get caught."

In his opening, defense attorney Randy Canney surprised the court. Page wouldn't contest his guilt for most of the crimes he was charged with, Canney said, including first-degree felony murder. The only exception was the charge of first-degree murder after deliberation.

Long before the trial began, Canney and lead counsel Jim Castle had offered to plead their client guilty to all of the charges, including first-degree murder after deliberation, if the DA wouldn't pursue the death penalty; however, the DA had turned them down. Canney knew the best chance for saving Page's life now was if the jury was satisfied with convicting him of first-degree felony murder. While that could still expose Page to a death-penalty hearing, neither a Colorado jury nor two panels of judges had sent a man to death row for felony murder. Judge or jury, it had always taken a conviction for first-degree murder after deliberation, along with the words that the defendant "intentionally caused the death of another."

So that was what this trial was all about. Page did not kill Peyton "after deliberation," his attorneys argued; he was mentally ill, his ability to deliberate removed by brain damage and years of childhood abuse.

Canney told the courtroom that Page was just three years old when his mother whipped him with electric cords until he bled, leaving scars on his back and legs. As a child, Page was repeatedly taken to the emergency room -- once after he fell on his head from a moving car. When he was ten, his grandmother's boyfriend raped him.

"We're not asking you to excuse Donta Page," Canney said. "We are asking you to hold him responsible and find room in your verdict to understand what happened here."

Pat Tuthill tried not to listen. She didn't look at photographs from the crime scene. She turned her face when the jury was shown a video that included footage of Peyton's body lying in a pool of blood.

Page's taped confession to Denver detective Jon Priest was played on the trial's second day. At times mumbling and barely discernible, Page talked about arriving at Stout Street and learning he wouldn't be leaving until 1:30 p.m. "I ain't got no money. I ain't have nothin', so it dawned on me that I seen that lady leave," he said. He'd grabbed the knife when he heard the lady return. "I jus' kept askin' her, 'Where the money at? Where the money at?' And she kept sayin' she didn't have none...She jus' kept fightin' me, fightin' me, kickin' me, so I tried to cut her throat."

When the defense took up its case, the attorneys focused on two issues. One was the alleged abuse Page had suffered as a child. His grandmother testified that he'd been beaten and verbally abused by his mother, who'd resented him from the day he was born. She said he was taken to the emergency room when he was ten for rectal bleeding, the result of one of her boyfriends raping him.

The other issue was brain damage. Defense experts, including Dr. Jonathan Pincus, testified that Page suffered from brain damage to his frontal lobes, perhaps as a result of having been shaken as an infant. Pincus, a neurologist from Georgetown University, had testified just a few months earlier on behalf of George Woldt who, along with Lucas Salmon, had murdered Jacine Gielinski in Colorado Springs in April 1997. A calcified growth in Woldt's brain, along with physical and/or sexual abuse as a child and an obsessive-compulsive personality disorder, could have been linked to Woldt's violent criminal acts, Pincus testified. Still, in September 2000, Woldt was sentenced to die.

As he had in Woldt's case, Pincus now testified that he'd interviewed 150 to 200 convicted murderers, many of them on death row, and found three factors common to most of their crimes: mental illness, physical and/or sexual abuse as a child, and neurological disorder. Like Woldt, Page qualified for all three: He had brain damage, he was abused, and he had an antisocial personality disorder.

Prosecutors called their own experts to rebut the defense's experts. Dr. David Johnson, the forensic psychiatrist at the state hospital in Pueblo who'd observed Page and deemed him competent, testified that blaming violent criminal behavior on brain damage was "a speculative interpretation." Although Page could have sustained head injuries, he thought it was unlikely, because tests indicated that the defendant's brain was functioning normally. Page knew at the time that what he was doing was wrong, Johnson said, pointing to his attempts to dispose of evidence and his escape.

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