For once, the City of Denver and local Freedom From Religion Foundation activist/attorney Bob Tiernan are on the same page -- if not the same chapter and verse. Tiernan, who has battled the city and other government agencies over separation of church and state matters, won his recent fight to have a cross removed from city property. The cross was an unofficial memorial to Denver police officer Bruce VanderJagt, who was shot to death on November 12, 1997, in an apartment complex near Monaco and Havana.
This fall, after the Denver Police Department honored VanderJagt's memory by placing an official plaque near the scene of the shooting, someone else erected a cross next to the plaque. And not only was that cross "an endorsement of religion by the city in violation of both the federal and the state constitutions," Tiernan argued in a December 29 letter to Assistant City Attorney Stan Sharoff, but it was a violation of Denver's sign code. Signs, banners, fliers and displays -- whether or not they contain religious symbols -- are illegal in a public right-of-way in Denver. Tiernan demanded that the cross be removed.
Sharoff visited the site in mid-January and determined that the cross was indeed in the public right-of-way. He asked the Department of Public Works to take it down. "Had it been a political sign, we would have done the same thing," Sharoff says, adding that the city is constantly removing illegally posted fliers and political advertising.
Matthaeus Jaehnig, the man who murdered VanderJagt, killed himself moments after the shooting. But since then, much has been made of the case of Lisl Auman, the young woman who was with Jaehnig beforehand -- and who was sitting, handcuffed, in a police car at the time of the officer's death. Auman was convicted under the controversial felony-murder law, which carries a mandatory life sentence ("Zero to Life," April 15, 1999); she is now locked up for the rest of her life. The most recent person to take up her cause is gonzo journalist and Aspen resident Hunter S. Thompson, who himself has been involved with the authorities on numerous occasions.
Recently, Thompson has been writing an ESPN.com column called "Hey, Rube" that joins politics, sports and current events in an often twisted but sublime way. Exhibit A: the column that appeared just before the January 28 Super Bowl. In it, Thompson ranted about football and the presidency, interjecting Auman into the mix. "One of Clinton's most Ignoble acts as President was not to pardon an Innocent 22-year-old girl named Lisl Auman, who will now go to prison for the rest of her life without Parole for a crime she was never even Accused of committing," Thompson wrote. "It is a long, ugly story & we don't have time or space for it now -- but you can get the gist of it from Lisl.com."
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