By Joel Warner
By Michael Roberts
By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
Ten years behind bars. Alan could do that, if it meant he never had to point the finger at anybody, never had to snitch.
So at a disposition hearing in November 1995, Alan pleaded guilty to robbing and killing Myers. It didn't seem to register with Alan — or anyone else, really — when Brian McHugh, the lead Arapahoe County prosecutor on the case, told the judge that the missing twenty-dollar bill had actually been found in Myers's shirt pocket during the autopsy, so there hadn't been any robbery to plead to. McHugh also noted that Nicholas Reed, who'd taken a plea deal and been sentenced a month earlier to 48 years for second-degree murder, repeatedly took credit for the killing. But McHugh wrote off that confession as the posturing of a "remorseless braggart," telling the judge that "we can show from the physical evidence that he could not have done that."
Alan didn't argue then, and he stuck to the script two months later, when he was sentenced to seventy years. "I would like to apologize to the family and say I didn't mean to do what happened," he told the judge. But what he was really thinking was that he wanted to get all the court stuff over with so that he could start serving his ten years.
Those ten years suddenly looked a lot longer when Alan arrived at the Limon Correctional Facility. As guards walked him in, the cell block grew quiet. Although Alan had turned seventeen in jail, he looked several years younger — maybe fourteen or fifteen. But now here he was, locked away in an adult prison. Things got easier for Alan once word spread that he was related to Michael Asberry — a connection neither his attorneys nor the prosecutors had ever made. Asberry's name commanded respect behind bars. It gave Alan enough protection that he could revert back to his old ways, clowning around with his fellow inmates like the goofball teenager he was.
That is, until the day a few weeks into his time when an older inmate asked Alan why he was so upbeat. When Alan replied that he'd be out in ten years, the inmate took him to the prison law library. Looking up the rules for his sentence, Alan now saw that there was no way he'd be free in a decade. In fact, his first parole hearing wouldn't even be scheduled until 2026.
That was thirty years away.
In February 2008, Alison Ruttenberg received an urgent e-mail from the head of Colorado's Office of the Alternate Defense Counsel. The Colorado Supreme Court had just ordered that a hearing be scheduled without delay for a Limon inmate named Alan Sudduth. Back in 1999, Sudduth had won the right to have the Arapahoe County District Court consider whether his attorneys had incorrectly advised him that he would serve just ten years of his seventy-year sentence. But for some reason, Arapahoe County had failed to look into the matter for nearly a decade. Now the case had finally been sent to the OADC, an organization that provided attorneys for indigent defendants when the public defender's office faced scrutiny for its work on a case.
Ruttenberg, a Boulder-based private attorney, specialized in post-conviction appeals, many of them based on mistakes made by trial lawyers. Successes were rare; most years in Colorado, fewer than a dozen new trials were granted. But Ruttenberg was used to tough challenges: As a lawyer and captain in the Colorado National Guard, she'd blown the whistle on her commander for taking fighter jets on joy rides, and when the commander retaliated against her, the Pentagon had stepped in and found in Ruttenberg's favor. Now she agreed to take on Sudduth's case, to see if any mistakes had been made that were major enough to justify a new trial.
At first she'd thought it would be a fairly minor matter, one she could almost handle while holed up in bed, recovering from a freak accident three months earlier that had left her with two broken ankles. Ruttenberg started looking into the details of Sudduth's case — only to find most of those details missing. His file at the Arapahoe County Public Defender's office was empty, its contents destroyed. She managed to get her hands on the transcripts of his disposition and sentencing hearings, though, and those were enough to leave a bad feeling in her gut. For years, Sudduth had been attempting to withdraw his guilty plea to aggravated robbery, arguing that the crime had never occurred, but every court he'd reached out to and every lawyer he'd been assigned had ignored his complaint. Now, though, Ruttenberg saw that the prosecutor on the case had admitted in court that there had been no robbery. What's more, he'd suggested that someone else had repeatedly confessed to the murder.
To get to the bottom of it, Ruttenberg decided that someone had to visit Alan Sudduth in Limon — and since she was still bedridden, she called on J.R. Maxwell, a private investigator she worked with. While Ruttenberg was a whiz with documents and legal issues, Maxwell could get people to talk when no one else could.