Last week's acquittal of Alejandro Perez in the murder of another inmate at the Limon Correctional Facility provides fresh ammo for critics of Eighteenth Judicial District Attorney Carol Chambers, whose determination to seek the death penalty for a prison gang homicide has resulted in a six-year debacle of prosecutorial missteps and defeats. It's tough enough to get a death-penalty verdict in Colorado. It's even tougher when the case is so troubled you can't get a conviction to stick.
Chambers' office had initially sought the death penalty for Perez and co-defendant David Bueno in the 2004 stabbing death of Jeffrey Heird. The decision was controversial from the start, since no state prosecutor had ever sought execution in an inmate-on-inmate killing before. Even in cases with clear-cut video evidence, such as the gruesome disembowelment of Joey Estrella by cellmates William and Rudy Sablan in the Florence federal pen in 1999, the jury refused to go for the ultimate penalty.
And the Heird killing was anything but clear-cut. There was a distinct lack of physical evidence tying Bueno and Perez to the deed. The case was largely built around the testimony of competing snitches, none of them of sterling character, and murky theories about gang payback over who snitched (or failed to snitch) on whom.
But, as first reported in my 2008 feature "Death Benefits," Chambers found an unusual way to fund a capital case against Bueno and Perez -- an obscure statute that allowed her to bill the Department of Corrections for the expenses (and even some of the paychecks) of her death-penalty team. That prompted defense attorney David Lane to declare, "What makes it a capital case is that Carol Chambers is making money hand over fist by pursuing it as a capital case."
Lincoln County District Judge Stanley Brinkley removed Chambers's prosecutors from the Perez case a few weeks after that article appeared, citing a range of concerns about possible ethical violations, from failing to disclose conflicts of interest to misleading court filings to the way the case was being funded. The Colorado Supreme Court later put her office back on the case, but the death penalty was no longer part of it. Meanwhile, Bueno's jury returned a guilty verdict but refused to impose death -- and last fall District Judge Douglas Tallman vacated that conviction, blasting the prosecution for "withholding relevant and possibly exculpatory evidence."
Chambers is now appealing that decision. In the meantime, what she has to show for many years of work and hundreds of thousands of dollars expended in state funds (for both the prosecution and defense) is exactly... nothing. Perez is slated for parole soon, while Bueno continues to serve a lengthy sentence for other crimes.
Still, chief deputy district attorney Jason Siers defends the prosecution effort. "We would not have gone to trial unless we felt we had the right guys," he says. "To say we're disappointed is an understatement. I have to think the jury just didn't feel the witnesses were credible enough."
Prosecutors presented two witnesses who claimed to have heard a scream and observed Bueno and Perez exiting the cell where Heird was killed. But other witnesses refused to testify, even when faced with contempt charges; one was assaulted in jail while the trial was underway. "The prison environment adds a certain dimension to this," Siers says. "And certainly, there was a lot of scrutiny and delay because it was at one point a death-penalty case."
Lane, who was part of the Perez defense team when it was still a capital case, says it was not only the flimsiest death-penalty case he's ever seen but the flimsiest homicide case. "For prosecutors to bring a death-penalty case and at the end of the day have it end up in an acquittal, that's virtually unheard-of," he says. "It just doesn't happen."
Speculation has limited value, but it's intriguing to ponder how such a shaky case might have been resolved if the defendants (and the entire apparatus of the death-penalty defense bar, which Chambers has denounced repeatedly) hadn't been staring at extermination from the get-go. Instead, prosecutors went to trial, relying on inmate witnesses -- who, the defense suggested, had received various breaks for their testimony -- and a case that took years to prepare and seven hours for a jury to throw out as unpersuasive.
It's not impossible to get the death-penalty in this state when the case is sufficiently heinous; Chambers herself demonstrated this in successfully pursuing capital cases against Sir Mario Owens and Robert Ray for the 2005 murders of witness Javad Marshall-Fields and his fiancee, Vivian Wolfe.
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But asking death from a Colorado jury is asking a lot. The cause, it seems, must be just. And the DA pursuing it above reproach.
"Carol Chambers is a dangerous extremist," says Lane, "who needs to be out of office."
More from our Education archive: "Javad Marshall-Fields/Vivian Wolfe CSU scholarship endowed 5 years after their murders."