Colorado Attorney General Gale Norton won attention and re-election this fall with the help of slick TV ads touting her crime-fighting skills. One such commercial, implying that Norton keeps our streets safe by personally contesting felons' appeals, featured mug shots of some of the state's most heinous criminals. As the photos flashed by, an authoritative male voice boomed out the crimes for which each man had been convicted, followed by the pronouncement, "Appeal denied."
For politics, it was good theater. But for at least one of those infamous felons, the ad is the basis for a future lawsuit. Convicted murderer Clyde Savage says he plans to file court papers claiming that Norton broke the law and that the ad has endangered his life. Savage is in prison for taking the life of a twelve-year-old boy.
"That ad," says Savage, "takes us a step back to the Stone Age where they would take a so-called criminal and parade them up the street in a cage and let the public ridicule them and harass them."
Savage says Norton's ad has placed him in peril at the Buena Vista prison, where he's spent the past four years, and that other inmates face the same potential problem. For that reason, he says, jailhouse lawyers are busily researching the law to help him write a complaint expected to be filed in Denver District Court within the next couple of weeks.
The stars of the GOP attorney general's commercial committed the types of crimes that give the public nightmares. Two of the men--Gary Lee Davis and Ronald White--are on death row. Davis, along with his wife, Rebecca, kidnapped 34-year-old Virginia May from the yard of her Byers farmhouse in July 1986 as her young children watched. Davis, who later testified that he had wanted May as his "sex slave," admitted raping and torturing her, leading her to a field with a rope around her neck, beating her and shooting her fourteen times. (Rebecca Davis got life in prison.)
Ron White was sentenced to death in 1991 for torturing, murdering and mutilating Paul Vosika. He was already serving life sentences for the killings of two other men when he admitted to killing Vosika.
Savage's face and crime were sandwiched between those of White and Davis in Norton's ad. "Clyde Savage," the announcer's voice intoned as Savage's visage appeared. "Killer of a twelve-year-old."
Savage was convicted of first-degree murder in the 1986 death of a neighbor's son, twelve-year-old Ruben Romero, who was cut down by sniper fire while riding a skateboard in front of his south Denver home.
Prosecutors in Savage's trial claimed he had slain the boy in a fit of racist passion. "They tried to say I killed a person because of his nationality," says Savage, who is white. "But I didn't kill anybody, number one, and number two, I was put up as some kind of bigot." Savage was sentenced to forty years to life. He will be eligible for parole in 2028.
Because of the racial overtones in the case, says Savage, he began receiving death threats as soon as he set foot in prison. "They decided to send me to Canon City--The Walls--because the inmates had made it known to the guards they would do me in." Savage claims he stayed in the prison infirmary for three months partly due to the threats and partly because he was considered a suicide risk. From there he went to the maximum-security Centennial prison, where he was kept in protective custody. He was moved to the medium-security prison in Buena Vista four years ago.
Savage first learned of his role in Norton's commercial when a fellow inmate told him about it. Savage didn't catch his TV debut until a few weeks later, during a commercial break of Disney's Swiss Family Robinson.
The day after he first learned of the ad, Savage says, "I was approached by several inmates and told about the same thing. Every day, more and more inmates came up and told me. It became the topic in the shower, in the gym yard, the weight room."
Savage says that since the ad aired he has been unnerved by the looks he gets from other inmates, by the fact that he constantly hears his name come up in conversation, and because his fellow inmates now know why he was incarcerated. "A lot of people here don't choose to disclose their crime," says Savage. "They are deathly afraid. Prison can become a hazardous environment at that point."
Thus far, Savage has not been targeted by death threats or assaults. He claims that some of his fellow inmates are rallying around him in support of a new cause. "I think a lot of the inmates are concerned that their faces will be flashed on TV," he says.
Besides the claim of "endangerment of life," he says, inmates who work in the law library have unearthed another possible basis for court action: a 1992 state law prohibiting the use of criminal justice records for soliciting business and/or for pecuniary gain. The convicts claim Norton broke the law because she used Savage's image and criminal record to retain her seat and her salary.
Whether Savage has a legal leg to stand on is uncertain. "My question is, `Were the pictures that were used freely available to other people?'" says ACLU attorney David Miller. "For example, could [Norton opponent] Dick Freese get them? If so, it's a non-issue."
Both Miller and state solicitor general Tim Tymkovich say mug shots and criminal records are public information and that the law cited by the jailhouse lawyers was intended to prevent attorneys from going through criminal records in search of business. "I can understand how [the inmates] can dream up something like this," Tymkovich says, "but it just doesn't fit."
On the other hand, Miller says, although inmates lose a great many rights, that doesn't mean they can be placed in what amounts to a more dangerous situation. "If the mere fact of being in prison puts him in a dangerous position, that's his tough luck, as long as the prison is doing so constitutionally," says Miller. "If they're taking steps to endanger him, however, that would cause concern."
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Buena Vista warden Gary Neet says he has not been told of any potential danger to Savage. But Bob Cantwell, chief of staff for the Department of Corrections, was contacted by a prison-rights activist who was concerned that harm might come to Savage. The woman, Cantwell says, also questioned whether Norton had broken the law.
"I took the matter to the attorney general's office," Cantwell says, "and I had them look into it to make sure the attorney general could do what she was doing. They said there was nothing illegal about it because it was all public record." Cantwell's concerns were passed along the lines of command in the attorney general's office, presumably to Norton. Norton, who was on vacation last week, could not be reached for comment.
Last summer Norton began complaining about large numbers of "frivolous" lawsuits filed by Colorado inmates, noting that the number of suits has more than doubled in the past six years. She then called for state and federal regulation to discourage what she termed recreational lawsuits.
Savage's suit, says Tymkovich, would probably fit Norton's definition.