18th Judicial District DA Carol Chambers is in the national spotlight as the district attorney in charge of prosecuting James Holmes, the accused killer in the Aurora theater shooting. But shortly before questions about whether Chambers would seek the death penalty against Holmes, her office filed a motion in another death penalty case asking a judge to exclude arguments about redemption that refer to the Bible.
The document, on view below, is dated June 27 and pertains to the case of Edward Montour, who was convicted of murdering corrections officer Eric Autobee at a Limon prison in 2002. As pointed out by the Denver Post, Montour had previously received a life sentence for killing his infant daughter. But his subsequent death penalty for the Autobee slaying was tossed because it hadn't been handed down by a jury, leading to more years of legal wrangling. Montour's latest death penalty trial is now slated for February 2013.
In the so-called "Motion in Limine to Exclude Use of Blblical Parables and Religion-Based Theological Appeals," Chambers, via her deputies, "requests that the Court...enter an order prohibiting counsel from injecting Biblical references, appeals, or arguments at any stage of trial or sentencing hearing."
Why? The motion argues that "it is inappropriate for defense counsel(s) to make Biblical references, appeals, or arguments to the jury to spare the defendant's life so that he can be 'redeemed by God,' during any stage of a sentencing hearing."
David Lane, Montour's attorney, seems simultaneously shocked and amused by this request, which was denied by a judge in the Montour case last week. Via a quippy e-mail, he asks, "Who do you know of who opposes God, Religion, Jesus etc. from making an appearance in Court???? Only one I can think of is...SATAN!!!!"
In a conversation today, Lane addressed the question more seriously. "Seeking to ban any mention of God or religion when dealing with concepts such as mercy and punishment is to deny our cultural history and experience," he says, "because all concepts of mercy are rooted in religion. It's the starting point from our cultural perspective for forgiveness. And they want to eliminate that from this case."
This isn't the first time Chambers' office has tried to remove specific language from Lane's vocabulary when it comes to the Montour matter. As we reported in 2009, the prosecutors also objected to Lane saying they wanted to "kill" his client.
Page down to read about how the Montour case could prefigure Chambers's approach to the James Holmes prosecution and see the Biblical-reference motion.
According to our Alan Prendergast, the prior dust-up was triggered by a letter Montour wrote to John Topolnicki, the chief deputy DA, on his resentencing. Fearing a possible legal minefield in communicating directly with a defendant in a capital case, Topolnicki asked a judge to review the letter before he opened it -- and Lane countered by asking that it be turned over to the defense. In a court filing, Lane insisted that prosecutors "have no specific legal right to open that letter...yet they hope to do in the hopes that Mr. Montour has written something they can use against him in order to kill him."
This last line prompted protests from Chambers' office, which requested an order from the judge "prohibiting the defense from future use of derogative terms that suggest lack of constitutional, legislative, professional, honorable, ethical, and/or secular moral authority as sworn representatives of the People of the State of Colorado to seek the imposition of death as the appropriate penalty in this case."
The proper terminology, according to the DA's office, was the "imposition of death."
To Lane, the latest motion echoes the earlier one. "They want to gag the defense generally," he allows. "They want to deny they want to kill Edward Montour, which is exactly what they're trying to do, and they want to eliminate any argument based on the concept of mercy."
Do such tactics suggest the approach Chambers and her office may take toward the Holmes prosecution? Lane thinks so.
"You're getting a preview of coming attractions with her," he says.
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Here's the recently rejected Biblical-references motion.