Dead Reckoning

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

Because Page was now facing a death-penalty hearing, the prosecutors wouldn't comment after the verdict. Page's attorneys also left the courthouse without making a statement. They released one later: "Our hearts go out to the Tuthill family. Our sincerest hopes and prayers are that they can begin the process of healing.

"Whether or not Donta Page lives or dies is now up to a panel of three judges. Our remaining hope is that his life as the victim of severe abuse, neglect, rape, brain damage and mental illness will lead these three judges to a decision which will recognize that a life sentence without parole is a just result."


 
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 death-penalty hearing for Donta Page began on February 20, 2001, in front of trial judge Meyer and two judges selected to serve on the panel with him, Leland Anderson and R. Brooke Jackson, both of Jefferson County District Court. But the legal maneuvering had begun well before that.

Soon after the trial, Page's defense team had sent a letter to local religious, business and community leaders asking them, as the "voice of the community," to weigh in against the death penalty. While statewide polls had repeatedly found that Coloradans supported the death penalty, in Denver no man had been sent to death row since 1987, when a jury had sentenced Frank Rodriguez to death for the rape and murder of 54-year-old Lorraine Martelli. The letter was posted on the Coloradans Against the Death Penalty Web site. Peyton's family saw it as a hurtful attempt to drum up public support for Page.

Their anger grew when they learned that four jurors from the Page trial had signed affidavits asking that they be allowed to testify that they believed Page should be sentenced to life in prison.

The idea of jurors who had just convicted a murder defendant asking to testify in front of a death-penalty panel was a new twist on the state's death-penalty system. Lucas Salmon's attorneys had tried a similar tactic in June 1999, but the court had denied their request. Salmon was spared the death penalty when a lone judge voted against it.

Denver prosecutors quickly filed motions objecting to any testimony from jurors or community leaders, arguing that it was "irrelevant."

"These people are citizens who willingly served as jurors in a very difficult case and sifted through hours and hours of evidence and testimony," countered Don Bounds, president of Coloradans Against the Death Penalty. "District Attorney Ritter is effectively telling them that their opinion about such a literally life-and-death issue as the appropriate sentence doesn't matter.

"We have given our government the power to take away life. How that power is exercised, and who lives and dies as a result, goes directly to the kind of community and society we are."

Before the hearing, Meyer ruled against allowing community leaders to testify. But he waited until the morning of the hearing to issue his ruling regarding the jurors' request. Neither side in death-penalty cases should "campaign" to have jurors testify for them during the penalty phase, he determined; it would appear "unseemly and inappropriate" and could make jury selection more difficult. Nor did the Colorado death-penalty statute provide for jurors testifying at death-penalty hearings.

With that matter settled, Cooper opened for the prosecution, with a statement much like the one he'd delivered at the trial. This time, though, he included "aggravating factors" that the prosecution believed demonstrated why Page deserved the death penalty rather than life in prison: Page had committed burglary, robbery and rape in the course of the murder; he had committed the crime for monetary gain; he had intentionally killed his victim to avoid arrest; and the murder was especially "heinous, cruel and depraved."

In his opening, Canney argued that brain damage had left Page unable to control the outburst that led to Peyton's rape and murder.

This was the third first-degree-murder case in Canney's career -- and in as many years. The first was Frank Vigil Jr., one of the gang members accused in the May 1997 murder of fourteen-year-old Brandy DuVall, but that had not been a death-penalty case; Vigil was only sixteen at the time of the crime and therefore not eligible for a death sentence. Instead, he'd been sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison.

Canney's first death-penalty hearing had been for mass murderer William Lee "Cody" Neal, who'd fired his public defenders and insisted on representing himself, with Canney appointed as advisory counsel. Canney believed that Neal was legally insane and had tried to have him found incompetent; the judge had disagreed. For Canney, it had been deeply troubling to watch Neal plead guilty and then figuratively, if not yet literally, hang himself at his death-penalty hearing in October 1999.

Yet neither of those two defendants had affected Canney the way Donta Page had. Vigil had played the hard-nosed gangbanger; Neal had come across as a raving sociopath who was more cooperative with the prosecutors than with his defense counselor. But Canney had spent a lot of time with Page, and he'd come to know him as a human being.

For such an enormous man, Page seemed more like an injured child than a cold-blooded killer, one who was truly remorseful for what he'd done. Although plenty of Canney's clients had said they were sorry, he hadn't always believed them -- and usually no one else did, either. But in this case, he could swear that Page's sorrow and remorse were genuine.

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