Arapahoe County DA Charges Death-Penalty Fees to the State

How does DA Carol Chambers beat the high cost of a death-penalty prosecution? By billing the prison system.

The State of Colorado has managed to execute one murderer in the past forty years. Its death row, current population one, is among the smallest in the country. For four years after a 2002 U.S. Supreme Court decision threw out the state's system of having three judges decide whether an inmate should be executed, not a single new capital case was filed.

Some prosecutors regard the pursuit of the death penalty in the Centennial State as an exercise in futility. Even for the most heinous crimes, they say, it's difficult to get juries to impose the ultimate sentence — and then the appeals process can drag on for a decade or more, with taxpayers shelling out millions to fund both sides of the court battle. A recent memo to Governor Bill Ritter from the Colorado Attorney General's Office says it's not unusual for the defense in a death-penalty case to file between 300 and 400 motions, all of which must be answered by the prosecution. There are district attorneys who would rather undergo a colonoscopy with a garden hose than face such a gauntlet of budget-busting paperwork and frustration.

Then there's Carol Chambers, the maverick district attorney of the 18th Judicial District, which includes Arapahoe, Douglas, Elbert and Lincoln counties. Her office is pursuing six of the seven capital murder cases now under way in Colorado. The crusade has drawn heat from death-penalty opponents, but it's also attracting scrutiny from the state legislature.

Check, please: District Attorney Carol Chambers is seeking the death penalty for David Bueno (top right) and Alejandro Perez — and billing the state.
Check, please: District Attorney Carol Chambers is seeking the death penalty for David Bueno (top right) and Alejandro Perez — and billing the state.

Details

For more death-penalty coverage, go to our Crime and Punishment archive.

Using a 130-year-old statute that requires the Colorado Department of Corrections to reimburse counties for prosecuting crimes committed inside state prisons, Chambers has found an unusual way to pay for half of her death-penalty cases. She's billed the DOC hundreds of thousands of dollars in recent months, effectively shifting the cost of trying to execute three inmates from her county-funded budget to Colorado coffers. The tactic has forced prison officials to go to state lawmakers, seeking a special fund for "payments to district attorneys," and raised questions about whether Chambers can bill the state for the entire salaries of employees in her office, including a chief deputy making $131,000 a year.

"Carol Chambers has turned her death machine into a cash cow," says attorney David Lane, an inveterate death-penalty opponent who is representing one of the prisoners facing possible execution. "I've never seen a capital case go this way. The only explanation I can see is that it's a big moneymaker for her office. Killing people is big business for them."

Chambers denies that there's any profit motive involved in her office's reinvigorated pursuit of the death penalty. "There is nothing inflated or improper about our bill to the Department of Corrections," she insists. "There is no financial incentive in the litigation."

Controversy is nothing new to Chambers, who took office in 2004 after an upset victory in the Republican primary. Vowing to streamline the processes of justice in booming Arapahoe and Douglas counties, she's filed grievances against defense attorneys she considers unprofessional and ordered her staff to time judges' breaks. In 2006, a disciplinary panel publicly reprimanded her for interfering in a civil case involving a political ally.

She's also pursued habitual criminal charges against hundreds of chronic but low-level offenders, forcing them to accept lengthy prison terms in plea deals or risk more draconian sentences by going to trial ("The Punisher," February 8, 2007). "My objective has never been to make everybody like me," Chambers told Westword in an interview last year. "I'm going to do what I was elected to do."

But nothing has stirred up more debate than the number of capital cases Chambers is now pressing. In particular, her decision to seek death in the cases of David Bueno and Alejandro Perez, two state prisoners charged with the 2004 fatal stabbing of inmate Jeffrey Heird at the Limon Correctional Facility, has perplexed capital-punishment opponents. Bueno's trial started a few weeks ago and is expected to last months; a trial date for Perez has not yet been scheduled.

"It has been a head-scratcher from day one why this is a death-penalty case," Lane says. "In the history of the state, Colorado has never sought the death penalty for a prisoner killing another prisoner."

Federal prosecutors did seek death in the case of William and Rudy Sablan, cousins charged with the disembowelment of fellow inmate Joey Estrella in the most restrictive cell block of the Florence high-security penitentiary ("Marked for Death," May 25, 2000). But even in that exceptionally gruesome federal case, William Sablan was found guilty last year but spared execution. Rudy Sablan has yet to go to trial.

The Limon case appears to be a gang-related killing. Investigators believe that Heird, who allegedly had a close relationship with a female corrections officer, was killed because he failed to tip off gang members of an impending drug bust he learned about from the guard. At a meeting last year, Lane says, Chambers was asked by defense attorneys why she was seeking the death penalty in an inmate-on-inmate homicide, and she responded, "My reasons are private."

"A publicly elected official making the most important decision she can make, and her reasons are private? That's shocking," Lane says.

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