Dietrick Mitchell's Life Sentence Was Commuted Four Years Ago — So Why Is He Still in Prison?

Among the inmates marking time in a prison yard, it's not hard to pick out the ones who were sent into the adult system when they were still teenagers, before they had a chance to become men. Despite long years of trying to fit in, there's a kind of awkwardness to them, a boyishness that's tough to shake.

The trait seems particularly pronounced in the four dozen or so prisoners in the Colorado Department of Corrections who were sentenced as juveniles to serve life without parole -- prisoners like Dietrick Mitchell.

Mitchell, who turns forty this week, strides into a small visiting room at the Arrowhead Correctional Center with aplomb. The handshake is firm, the gaze unwavering, the voice soft-spoken, the arms festooned with religious tattoos. There is a calm earnestness in his manner, in the way he tells his story. Yet beneath the confident manner is something else -- a nervous laugh, thick glasses, a hint of an almost Urkel-like nerdiness. These are remnants of the skinny sixteen-year-old kid he used to be.

Mitchell believes in knowing his enemy. And his enemy, he explains, is his former self. That kid was foolish and reckless, a dumbass who ruined lives, including his own. It has taken Mitchell a long time to vanquish that kid, and he wants to put him behind him once and for all.

"I can't take back what has happened," he says. "If I could, I would. But I'm not the individual I was -- irresponsible, senseless. Though I've been forgiven by my Creator, it's hard sometimes to forgive yourself. I am no longer that sixteen-year-old kid. I have to forgive that guy. That guy -- for a long time, he was in control while I was incarcerated." When he was sixteen, Mitchell committed a terrible crime. He drank heavily, got behind the wheel of a car and sped down an Aurora street. He struck another sixteen-year-old youth, Danny Goetsch, who was walking in the gutter next to two friends. The impact was so violent that it sent Goetsch flying into the air, onto the windshield, then to the curb, literally knocking him out of his shoes. Mitchell never slowed down. Goetsch died within hours; Mitchell turned himself in two days later.

Mitchell has always insisted that he never saw Goetsch before hitting him and then fled in a panic. His supporters describe the crime as a drunken accident. Prosecutors called it a deliberate execution. They maintained that Mitchell aimed his car at Goetsch, accelerated to a high speed and mowed him down. It was a gang hit, they insisted, a case of an admitted Crip taking out someone he believed to be a rival "slob," a member of the Bloods.

"This was cold-blooded murder, not an accident," special prosecutor (and later Jefferson County District Attorney) Scott Storey wrote in a letter to the Denver Post a few years ago, defending the conviction. "Danny happened to be wearing the wrong color."

There are serious problems with the "gang-related killing" theory, though. Testimony at trial yielded no evidence that any gang rivalry was involved. Nobody was wearing colors that night, and Mitchell and Goetsch, who was white and has been referred to as a Crip wannabe, had never met. But jurors rejected the option of finding Mitchell guilty of vehicular homicide, an offense that usually carries a sentence of four to twelve years. Instead, they returned a verdict of first-degree murder -- making Mitchell the youngest person in Colorado ever sent to prison for life for a hit-and-run case.

At seventeen, Mitchell joined the ranks of the juvie lifers, the boyish men. Like many of them, he had trouble adjusting to prison life and spent years in solitary confinement. "I had a lot of growing up to do," he says now.

In 2011, as one of his last acts in office, Governor Bill Ritter issued a series of pardons and commutations. Mitchell and three other men who'd been juveniles when they committed their crimes were on the list. Ritter commuted Mitchell's sentence to 32 years -- which meant, having already served two decades inside, that he was now eligible for parole.

But Mitchell didn't get parole. Instead, the parole board gave him a five-year setback: He won't be able to reapply for parole until 2016. And despite Ritter's insistence that he intended for Mitchell to be freed "as soon as possible," DOC officials have declined to award him the credits for time served and good behavior that his attorney insists he's entitled to under the commutation order. Based on its own computations, the Colorado Attorney General's Office has declared that his release date is still years away.

The wrangle over Mitchell's freedom has evolved alongside a lawsuit brought by other prisoners, now being considered by the Colorado Supreme Court, that claims the DOC has improperly withheld earned time and good time for thousands of inmates, keeping them past their release dates. Meanwhile, Mitchell is still behind bars; he knows he's in the last lap of his incarceration, but he doesn't know how much longer it will continue. "This doesn't make any sense to me," says Mary Ellen Johnson, director of the Pendulum Foundation, which advocates for juveniles serving time in adult prisons. She points out that the other juvie commutes that Ritter ordered are now on the street, including Sean Taylor, who was sentenced to life for murder two years before Mitchell was. "Sean's been out for years, but they're still arguing about Dietrick. To ignore a governor's clear order is just shocking to me."

"I'm ready to go home," Mitchell insists. "I deserve a chance. I have loving people with me who want to see me succeed."

To try to make sense of Mitchell's dilemma is to try to make sense of the kid he used to be and how far he has come -- and to try to fathom the system that sent him to prison for life, then offered him deliverance, then snatched it away again. As awful as his crime was, it probably would not have resulted in a life sentence if it hadn't occurred at a particular point in Denver's history, when fears of gang violence and "super-predator" youths dominated the news. And if the circumstances surrounding his conviction and punishment hadn't been so exceptional, it's doubtful there would have been an intervention by Ritter -- a former prosecutor himself, not given to handing out passes to stone-cold killers.

The case still haunts former public defender Carrie Thompson, who represented Mitchell before his trial 23 years ago and played a key role in bringing his sentence to Ritter's attention. "The fact that Dietrick has done this amount of time makes me sick to my stomach," she says. "I am embarrassed for the criminal-justice system and how this case was handled."

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast

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