A Case Done to Death

The best argument against the death penalty may be a death-penalty trial.
Four weeks after opening arguments in the People v. Jon Morris, the prosecution is still trying to put out all its evidence against Morris, who is on trial for the brutal rape and murder of five-year-old Ashley Gray. But this is Denver's first death-penalty case in seven years, so for every step forward, there are objections and arguments and motions that set proceedings back by hours, by days, by weeks.

The jurors have seen more of the outside of Judge Michael Mullins's courtroom than they have of the inside. Seven weeks after their initial jury summons--selecting these sixteen people took longer than it did to seat a jury for Terry Nichols--they know every comfortable place to sit in City Hall. They have struck up friendships and stripped down their wardrobes; gone are the suits and briefcases of the early days. Also gone is any illusion that this trial will be over by Thanksgiving. They still have hopes for Christmas--but public defender Sharlene Reynolds may be pushing her date with the stork even as she pushes every possible advantage for her client.

Over the past four weeks, the prosecution has slowly trotted out witnesses whose testimony is inevitably interrupted by objection after objection, all adding to an already record number of motions for a Denver case. Since this is a death-penalty case, the defense is intent on pursuing every available option, protecting any potential avenue of appeal.

Over the same four weeks, Denver has seen two high-speed chases, one leading to the killing of a cop. And other children have died--killed by parents, killed by strangers, killed by friends like Ashley Gray's "Uncle Jon."

An Adams County girl put her newborn baby in a plastic bag, telling her sister, "I killed the thing."

A slightly older Adams County mother, who was that girl's age when she gave birth to her son eight years ago, now is charged with child abuse: Her diabetic boy died after she denied him insulin.

Denver has even had time to file a second death-penalty case: On Monday, Denver District Attorney Bill Ritter said he'd seek the death penalty against accused serial rapist Jacques Richardson, charged with the murder of Janey Benedict this past summer.

And JonBenet Ramsey is back in the forefront of the news: A New York lawyer has filed a complaint to compel Boulder District Attorney Alex Hunter to file charges; a neighbor has described the chilling scream she heard the night the six-year-old girl died.

JonBenet's name appears in the news far more often than that of Ashley Gray, even though the two girls were about the same age when their lives were cut short by deaths too horrifying to imagine. Ten months after her death, JonBenet is still a tabloid cover girl; Ashley is almost a footnote at Morris's trial. And the audience that crowded Mullins's courtroom to watch opening arguments--TV reporters, other attorneys--has dwindled to just a few print reporters and some police cadets. On Friday that handful was augmented by Richard Berrelez, the grandfather of Alie, a five-year-old who was killed in May 1993 after disappearing from the front of her apartment complex. "Alie wasn't the last, Ashley wasn't the last, JonBenet won't be the last," Berrelez says. "It will happen again and again. I don't want to see another one where they don't build a case."

Inspired by the gap between JonBenet and Ashley, in the four weeks since opening arguments people have donated enough money to buy Ashley's grave a marker--even though a lavish service for Ashley, complete with money for a tombstone, had been donated over two years earlier. Richard Berrelez doesn't mind the attention devoted to JonBenet. "They should all be that way," he says.

But there's one very simple, even simplistic, reason why JonBenet's death continues to attract attention while Ashley's does not, and the reason is not race, or money, or the difference between prominent, herbal-tea-swilling residents of Boulder and crack-smoking denizens of Five Points.

Unlike JonBenet's murder, Ashley's was solved, and solved quickly. But the mystery of JonBenet's death may never be resolved. (Alie Berrelez's murder, too, remains unsolved, although the file is still open.)

Jon Morris turned himself in the morning Ashley's body was found in a dumpster, less than twelve hours after he had lured the girl out of her bed with the promise of candy on the night of August 10, 1995. In a videotaped interview with police that day, Morris said he didn't remember anything after that, until he came to and found Ashley naked at his feet. Dead.

There is no mystery as to who killed Ashley Gray. There is no question as to whether her killer will be brought to justice. There is just the slow journey to see that justice is done.

Last Friday, between numerous interruptions from the defense, forensic pathologist Dr. Werner Spitz described Ashley's death. (The expert witness made good use of his time off the stand--a veteran of the O.J. Simpson civil trial, Spitz signed on as part of the Boulder DA's JonBenet team.) According to Spitz, Ashley was alive when she was raped. And then she was strangled with the T-shirt she'd worn to bed, strangled so violently that an imprint from the shirt was left at the base of her throat--the outline of a heart.

After the defense objected that Spitz hadn't made that observation to them, Mullins ruled that the jury should disregard the statement.

Dr. Karen Fukutaki was the prosecution's next witness. During opening arguments, prosecutor Sheila Rappaport's mere mention of the psychiatrist prompted an objection; on Tuesday morning, the defense's arguments against her appearance were so numerous that Mullins finally surrendered and sent the jurors, who'd never even made it into the box, off on a lengthy lunch break. The prosecution had asked Fukutaki to assess Morris's mental state; for her report, she had access to his military records, his school records, his medical records, the letters he wrote a woman he married after going to jail. She's researched his conversations with a jailhouse snitch, who says Morris told him he killed Ashley, told him that "there was something about her underclothes...and that he just had to see what it was like."

Fukutaki concluded that Morris was sane at the time Ashley Gray was killed. And his sanity is the only real question left to be answered in this courtroom. Whether Morris was in his right mind when Ashley died, whether he was mentally capable of knowing he committed murder, is literally the difference between a life sentence and death.

How much Fukutaki will be able to say in court, though, is up to the lawyers and the judge. The motions pile up and the record piles up, and even if the jury finds Morris guilty, even if the three-judge panel then sentences him to death, that final punishment will be many years and appeals away. "It becomes all about the suspect," says Richard Berrelez, "and the victim is totally, totally forgotten."

The wheels of justice turn so slowly that this doesn't seem like any kind of justice at all. Morris, a confessed killer, could have been put away for good months ago; instead, his case may stretch far longer than the life of JonBenet Ramsey or Alie Berrelez.

Or that of his victim, Ashley Gray, whose life ended just shy of six years, with the outline of a heart etched in the skin above her cold, still heart.


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