With the aid of volunteers, FOHVAMP created a statewide database of unsolved homicides; it turns out that three out of ten murders in Colorado are never prosecuted. The total number of unsolved killings in the state now stands at more than 1,500, by Morton's count, and is growing by 3 percent each year. His group pushed for a state team of specially trained investigators to tackle the backlog, but state officials claimed there was no money for such an undertaking ("A Cure for the Common Cold Case," February 14, 2008). Instead, the Colorado Bureau of Investigation managed to fund one position for a crime analyst to maintain an official database of cold cases.

That wasn't nearly enough for FOHVAMP. In 2009, the group backed a bill by Paul Weissmann, the House majority leader, that would have funded cold-case investigations by abolishing the death penalty. Colorado has executed only one person in the past four decades, and Weissmann argued that the millions of dollars a year the state spends on the seemingly endless appeals process could be better directed to putting more killers behind bars.

District attorneys denounced the bill, describing it as a divide-and-conquer strategy. COVA and the Department of Public Safety also opposed it, while Morton found himself in an odd alliance with the ACLU, the criminal defense bar and other so-called offender advocates in lobbying for it. But he insists FOHVAMP was simply interested in getting cold cases reopened, not the larger ideological debate involved.

"We're not one side or the other on the death penalty," he says. "We just don't have the investigators we need to address this problem."

The bill squeaked through the House and was narrowly defeated in the Senate. "It came within one vote of passing both houses," Morton sighs.

The defeat hasn't deterred FOHVAMP from keeping pressure on the unsolved-homicide issue. In 2010 a group of 26 law enforcement professionals — including a medical examiner, a crime lab specialist, several homicide detectives and an FBI behavioral analyst — began meeting quarterly on a voluntary basis to review cold cases statewide. When Morton learned that the group had cut its meetings from two days to one and had only reviewed five cases in a year, he urged his members to "ask the head of investigations for your loved one's case to present it to this team of experts." The review team has since seen its requests for review rise dramatically — again making the argument for a full-time squad of investigators.

Yet FOHVAMP's decision to break ranks from the "official" victim stance on the death penalty wasn't without some blowback. After the legislative brawl in 2009, Morton found the local VALE funds he relied on for some of his group's operating budget had been slashed. The VALE board in the Colorado Springs judicial district, which had provided FOHVAMP with up to $10,000 a year, refused to provide any additional funds for the next two years. Arapahoe County's board, which had provided $18,950 for four years running, trimmed its contribution to $10,000. Jefferson County, which had supplied $18,500 in the past, cut back to $10,000, then $8,000. And the Jeffco board specifically limited its contribution to Morton's $36,000 annual salary to $800, when it had previously paid $5,600 for that purpose.

"They just cut us off at the knees," Morton says.

One district's grant evaluator informed Morton by e-mail that her boardmembers "were not comfortable funding a significant portion of your salary because of the understanding that your activities as director of FOHVAMP involve lobbying, which grant funds cannot support." In response, Morton pointed out that all of his group's legislative lobbying on the death-penalty bill had been paid for by a foundation out of San Francisco.

"We did not use one dollar of VALE funds," he says. "We were legitimately doing what nonprofits do, and we were doing it with funds furnished by the Tides Foundation's death-penalty mobilization fund."

Maureen Cain believes that FOHVAMP was singled out for punishment because it had dared to take a public position contrary to that of the district attorneys and COVA. "Because they supported abolition, they became the stepchild of the victim groups," she says.

Morton is more diplomatic. "Perhaps there's some anger on the part of some VALE boardmembers that we're growing so fast," he suggests. "I think some people are getting embarrassed by the amount of unsolved homicides in Colorado."

The official victim lobby proved to be a formidable foe in another pitched battle this past legislative session, involving a cause dear to prison reformers: juveniles convicted of murder in adult court and sentenced to life without parole [LWOP]. As of 2009 Colorado had 48 such cases — more than Utah, Arizona and Wyoming combined, but considerably fewer than Pennsylvania (444) or Louisiana (335). In 2006 the state changed the mandatory sentence for juveniles facing life to allow for parole eligibility after serving forty years. The law wasn't retroactive, though, so it had no impact on the existing LWOP population.

For the past several years, juvenile-justice groups — notably the Denver-based Pendulum Foundation, which has been active in campaigning against LWOP measures nationwide — have urged lawmakers to consider extending a forty-year parole window for the current lifers, too. A 2011 House bill would have done just that, but prosecutors and COVA worked strenuously to defeat it. Lewis and others urged victims to "deluge" Crisanta Duran, a freshman state representative, with phone calls and e-mails opposing the bill. It died in committee 6-5, with Duran the swing vote.

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7 comments
Guest
Guest

Some good points in here but the reporting is pretty one-sided.

For instance: Why no mention of the fact that the while COVA was urging their supporters to contact Rep. Duran and ask her to vote against HB 1287 the Pendulum Foundation was making the exact same plea to their supporters to get Rep. Duran to change her vote?

Also, you point out COVA's lobbying efforts several times but I didn't see any mention of the fact that the Pendulum Foundation is a client of J. William Artist & Associates, one of the most powerful lobbying groups in Colorado.

I freely admit my bias - a family member was killed by one of the men whose sentence would have been retroactively reduced under HB 1287 - but if you're going to claim objectivity in your reporting, you should at least make an effort to not let your bias color the story.

calhounp
calhounp

I'd like to publish some of these comments in our print Letters to the Editor section -- ideally with your full name/town. Let me know if that's okay at patricia.calhoun@westword.com

JusticeForAll
JusticeForAll

COVA has always been a direct arm of law enforcement and is so disconnected from the needs and voices of victims they claim to represent. They are far too systems oriented and it is abhorrent that money that VALE takes from direct service agencies is being given to COVA through the nepotism of personal relationships that exist between Nancy Lewis and her hand-picked board of directors.

On Fire
On Fire

Okay. Apparently COVA sees some victims as worth helping and others as not. The victims worth helping include abusive parents and the poor feeble prosecutors who are just trying to build political careers on the backs of abused children. The victims not worth helping are abused children themselves. Got it.

TruthSeeker
TruthSeeker

This was an amazing story. It's finally time that people started taking a look at the money trail of these organizations, especially COVA. They've been in the pockets of the systems-based agencies for years and get money funneled to them for their support. It's no accident that the Denver VALE administrator and co-administrator both serve on COVA's board and routinely take money away from direct-service agencies and hand it over to COVA. They do not speak for victims and I applaud the many agencies who have stood up to COVA to truly speak for their clients. Many of those folks have had their funding taken away by COVA's board members, who handle so much of the victim services funds in Colorado. Shame on COVA.

Catherine
Catherine

Thank you, Mr. Prendergast, for a very enlightening and in-depth story. Also, thank you to Mr. Lee for trying to find an outside the box solution to crime and community healing. The program might need finesse, but I believe it is an important step in the right direction. I hope that other Coloradoans support the measure. Catherine Keske.

Maryellen
Maryellen

Advocates for changing sentencing laws for juveniles serving life have always acknowledged that this issue is extremely complicated. There is no denying the pain of the victims and we advocates for sentencing reform have never done so. However in the past when we tried to introduce changes in the laws, we have been summarily dismissed by COVA and many district attorneys. "No, no, no." "The system is just fine the way it is." Our experience has been similar to Rep. Lee's. One year when we wrote voluntary restorative justice language into a bill, victims groups opposed it saying, "It has to be voluntary." When we pointed out that the provision WAS voluntary, they ignored the wording, pretending that it didn't say precisely what it DID say. No compromise, no changes are needed, regardless of evolving public opinion, scientific advances in the area of teen brain development, studies showing that juveniles receive harsher sentences than adults for the same crimes, and recent supreme court rulings.

We have enough obstreperousness on a national level. We in Colorado must be more thoughtful than that.

Kudos to Alan Prendergrast for a fresh look at a difficult issue. Victims are not a monolithic group and victims' rights groups, such as COVA, would be well served to expand their vision to include more restorative justice and to listen to the voices of victims who seek a measure of redemption and rehabilitation for offenders rather than endless punishment.

Somewhere amid all this pain and destruction there are areas of agreement and healing. I hope Alan's article and Rep. Pete Lee's legislation will be a step in that direction.Mary Ellen Johnson, Executive DirectorThe Pendulum Foundation

 
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