Shades of Black
They were an unlikely pair of killers, the big-talking ladies' man and the quiet missionary. George Woldt and Lucas Salmon. One was supposedly the leader and the other the follower, but it's doubtful that either would have had the nerve to do alone what they did together. They planned their evil for a month, and then high-fived each other when it was over.
Woldt came up with the plan. Just twenty years old, he was the elder of two children born to serviceman William Woldt and Song Hui Woldt, a Korean national. A military family, the Woldts had moved around a lot, from Korea to Germany to Indianapolis and, finally, Colorado Springs.
Theirs was not a happy household. William Woldt worked long hours and then stayed out even longer, drinking. When he finally got home, he'd knock George around. Song Hui was mentally ill, suffering from paranoia. She'd never adjusted to Western culture, and she taught young George to speak Korean, fixed him Korean meals. She expected him to be perfect, and when he wasn't, she raged at him.
Read more Westword coverage of the Colorado Death Penalty in The Penalty Zone
George Woldt was exceptionally bright. Outgoing and popular, he loved being the center of attention. In high school he often exaggerated, telling some acquaintances that he was a contract killer. He bragged that he'd had sex with more than twenty women.
Denver Outlaws / Major League Lacrosse All Star Game
TicketsSat., Dec. 29, 6:00pm
With his brains and charisma, Woldt could have been a real success, but he lacked direction and purpose. And there was a flip side to his charm. He finished high school but soon moved out of his parents' home and in with his pregnant girlfriend -- then left before the birth of their child. He liked to watch porn movies, especially those whose themes focused on torture and killing. His girlfriends found him to be mentally abusive, and he forced at least one to have sex with him after the relationship was over. There was also this fantasy he entertained, but he needed help to carry it out.
In 1995, he and a friend were outside a nightclub, watching a woman, when Woldt suggested that they kidnap and rape her. His friend didn't take him seriously. A year later, Woldt suggested much the same thing to another friend, Derrick Ayers. He talked of finding a couple parked along some road in the mountains west of Colorado Springs. They'd rape the woman in front of the man, he said, and then kill them both with large rocks.
Woldt even went so far as to put a large rock in Ayers's car when they were cruising around the mountains, then pointed out a couple in a red car alongside the road. But the scheme didn't go anywhere: Ayers wasn't willing, and, as he would later testify, Woldt was too "chickenshit" to do it on his own. He needed an accomplice, someone he could control and manipulate. He needed Lucas Salmon.
In many ways, the two were opposites. Salmon came from a conservative Christian family whose life centered around the church; his father had moved his company to Colorado Springs in part because Focus on the Family had its headquarters there. Even after the parents divorced, they both remained very involved in their kids' lives.
Lucas was bright, too, but socially immature and even a little odd. His siblings and friends teased him about his haphazard appearance; some days he'd show up at school wearing his clothes inside out. He badly wanted friends, but he also spent a lot of time alone, drawing and playing video games.
After graduating from high school, Salmon went to a Christian college in southern California. He gave haircuts to the homeless and went on two missions to Mexico, where he helped build an orphanage. His colleagues noted how well he got along with the children.
But Salmon wasn't doing well in college, and he dropped out. He took a job as a caregiver in a program for autistic adults, working for minimum wage and a place to live. He was charged with providing 24-hour care for a man who was unable to control any of his bodily functions and needed constant supervision. As thanks, Salmon had to put up with the man's verbal and physical abuse.
Although everyone said he was a "nice" guy, Salmon was bothered by his difficulty in attracting women, especially any interested in having sex with him. Thin and balding, he'd had a couple of girlfriends, but when they let him know the "boundaries," he respected their wishes. He was still a virgin when he returned to Colorado in 1996 and moved in with George Woldt and his new girlfriend.
Salmon had known Woldt since high school and admired his glib way with women. He knew Woldt could be trouble -- the one and only time Salmon had gotten in hot water with authorities was over a rock-throwing incident involving Woldt -- but he'd never done anything really bad.
Salmon began emulating Woldt in both dress and behavior. But the relationship was a strange one. One minute Woldt would be calling him "my best friend," and the next he'd go out of his way to make fun of Salmon in front of other people. Woldt seemed to enjoy making him jump through hoops to maintain their friendship, and he threatened to end it any number of times. Yet he invited Salmon to be his best man when he got married in Delaware.
It was at the wedding that Woldt first mentioned his fantasy to Salmon. He suggested they kidnap and rape a young woman at the reception. Salmon thought his friend was joking.
While Woldt was on his honeymoon, Salmon lived with his father and two of his brothers and began working in his father's business. Not long after he started there, though, female co-workers began complaining that he was making sexually inappropriate comments and using crude language.
When Woldt and his wife returned, Salmon moved back in with the newlyweds. Woldt's wife was pregnant and didn't want Salmon living with them, but her husband had his mind on other things. He kept talking to Salmon about his fantasy of rape and murder, and he wanted him to participate. Desperate to keep Woldt's friendship, after about a month, Salmon had adopted the fantasy as his own.
On April 27, 1997, they decided it was time to act.
They muffed their first attempt late that afternoon. Driving through the Garden of the Gods, the pair saw Amber Gonzales jogging alongside the road. They hit her with the car, as if by accident, and then offered to take her to a hospital. Gonzales wisely refused their help.
The two decided to move on to another victim. Their blood was up; they were "psyched," Salmon later told police. They ended up at a nightclub, where they began following women to their cars. But again and again, their plan was aborted when a man would appear and the pair had to abandon their prey. Finally, Salmon and Woldt gave up for the night and were driving home when a pretty young blonde pulled up next to them at a stoplight. They'd found their victim.
Jacine Gielinski, a former athlete at Littleton High School, was attending the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. That night, the 22-year-old was on her way to visit her boyfriend, and she remained unaware of the car that followed her for several miles to her boyfriend's apartment complex. Jacine had gotten out of the car and was walking toward the building when Woldt suddenly grabbed her from behind and started dragging her toward Salmon's car. She screamed and fought, attracting the attention of several witnesses, but no one came to her aid. Woldt and Salmon shoved her into the back seat of the vehicle and took off.
As the young woman begged her captors not to hurt her, Woldt beat her, tearing off her clothes as he directed Salmon to an elementary-school parking lot. There they took turns raping her. When they finished, they made her crawl backward out of the car and lie on the pavement with her shirt over her head. The men spent the next ten minutes standing over Jacine, discussing what to do next.
Salmon had seen witnesses at the apartment complex and thought there was a good chance that someone had taken down his license plate. But they decided to kill Gielinski anyway; they certainly couldn't leave her as a witness. Woldt retrieved a steak knife from the glove box. Then the men took turns cutting her throat and stabbing her in the chest until Jacine screamed and moaned in pain. When the knife bent, Salmon straightened it out so that they could continue. But Jacine didn't die easily.
Woldt slashed her left wrist, but still she lived. So Salmon took her shirt and smashed it down over her face to smother her while Woldt stood on her chest to force the air out. They kept discussing the best technique to finish the job, ordering Jacine to move and cooperate as they came up with new ideas.
At last they determined that she was dead. But Woldt had one last suggestion: They should stuff mud in her vagina to destroy DNA evidence of their rapes. Once that was done, they rolled her body under a van, threw her blood-soaked bra and the knife in the trunk of Salmon's car, and drove off.
The two men headed back to Woldt's apartment, exchanging high-fives over the success of their mission. "I'm not a virgin anymore," Salmon noted. At the apartment, they joked about how "stupid" they were and listed the mistakes they'd made.
One of the mistakes involved the license plate. A short time later, the police showed up and took the two men into custody. Separated from his friend, Salmon at first denied knowing anything about a kidnapping. When the police asked to search his car, however, he gave his permission, knowing they would find the bra and knife. Confronted by the evidence, he confessed -- matter-of-factly, without emotion -- and told the police where they could find Jacine Gielinski's body. Later, after being appointed lawyers from the Colorado Public Defender's Office, Salmon waived his bond hearing, saying it was not "appropriate" that he be released.
Woldt also confessed, and the men were charged with first-degree murder. Soon after, El Paso District Attorney Jeanne Smith announced that her prosecutors, Dan Zook and David Young, would be seeking the death penalty. On March 4, 1999, Lucas Salmon was found guilty of first-degree murder after deliberation, felony murder, sexual assault and kidnapping, as well as attempted kidnapping for the incident with Gonzales.
El Paso District Judge David Parrish presided over Salmon's trial and was subsequently joined on the death-penalty panel by El Paso District Judge Michael Heydt and Pueblo District Judge James Frasher. But in April, just as the Robert Riggan death-penalty hearing -- the first to give the sentencing decision to a panel of judges instead of a jury -- was getting under way, Heydt resigned from the bench rather than serve on the panel. He was eventually replaced by El Paso District Judge Peter Booth.
"I do not believe that a fair and just decision can be made by a panel of judges from a paper record," Heydt said in resigning. "I do not wish to participate in a death-penalty process unless I believe that it is one that I can live with, not only as a judge, but also as a human being."
But both Booth and Frasher accepted the challenge of reading the 3,000-page transcript of the trial, representing ten days of testimony from witnesses. As the hearing began that June, Young gave the prosecution's opening statement accompanied by six minutes of video projected onto a large screen that showed a battered, nude Jacine Gielinski lying on her stomach, face down in a pool of blood. Young said the prosecution intended to prove seven aggravators -- those legally defined circumstances of the crime that demonstrated why Salmon deserved the death penalty rather than life in prison -- necessary for the first step of the death-penalty process.
Robert Pepin, president of the Colorado Criminal Defense Bar, opened for the defense, saying his side would be calling witnesses to testify that Salmon was a nonviolent, caring individual until he fell under the sway of the much more evil George Woldt. Some of those witnesses would be psychologists who would attest that Salmon had a "dependent personality disorder" that made him so desperate to keep Woldt's friendship that he participated in the rape and murder. The testimony, as well as Salmon's age at the time of the murder, 21, and his general immaturity, would be offered as mitigators, he said. And then Pepin made a curious comment. Bad as the crime was, he said, Lucas Salmon did not "fit the profile" of the killers on death row; the defense would be calling a witness to demonstrate that, too.
After Pepin finished, prosecutor Zook called the El Paso County coroner to the stand to testify regarding Jacine's wounds. And then Zook surprised everyone by announcing that he was resting his case. The judges had what they needed; there was little more the prosecution could add.
As promised, the defense called its experts to testify about Salmon's psychological makeup. At Salmon's trial, defense attorney Lauren Cleaver had told the jury that her client's dependent-personality disorder made it impossible for him to "deliberate" the murder of Jacine; the jury had rejected that contention. But the defense still hoped that the judges would accept it as mitigator.
The defense also called friends of Salmon's, who described a different man from the one who had raped and killed Jacine. One of his former girlfriends noted that Salmon had respected the sexual boundaries she'd established and had kept his hands to himself far better than any boyfriend she'd had since.
Salmon's parents also took the stand. They loved their son, they told the panel, but did not ask that his life be spared. Whatever decision the judges reached, Robert Salmon said, he hoped it would bring some closure for Jacine's family and friends. "I guess I don't envy your decision," he told the judges. "I love my son. But I have to tell you that Jacine's family is my primary concern. I have to tell you that whatever's best for them is my desire."
And for every dollar he spent on his son's defense, Robert Salmon added, he was also contributing a dollar to a memorial fund established in Jacine's name.
Salmon's mother, Gail Keller, told the judges that her son was bright but had never lived up to his potential. "I never, never could have imagined this...that my son could be convicted of rape and murder and be facing the death penalty," she said. "I just ask that you come to this decision carefully and honestly. I'll be praying for you."
Then, over the prosecution's objections, Judge Parrish allowed the defense to call attorney Ingrid Defranco to the stand, to present a "proportionality review" that compared Salmon to the other men already on death row.
Until this point, judges serving on death-penalty panels had considered much the same evidence that juries had. And even their decisions had mirrored past jury decisions. For instance, although the option was on the books, no jury had ever sent a defendant to death row for a first-degree felony-murder conviction -- nor had the panels considering the fates of Robert Riggan and Jacques Richardson.
But now, at the fifth death-penalty trial to be heard by judges, the Salmon defense team was offering evidence that no Colorado death-penalty jury had ever been asked to contemplate. Before this, a proportionality review had been reserved for an appellate court trying to determine whether a defendant had been fairly sentenced. Gary Davis, through his attorneys, had asked the Colorado Supreme Court for a proportionality review -- a comparison of crimes and criminals -- to determine if his death sentence for the 1987 murder of Virginia May was appropriate. In that case, the court had ruled that a proportionality review was not constitutionally required and determined that there was "no defect" in the state law. In pretrial motions in other cases, defense attorneys had asked that such information be allowed in front of a jury, but trial courts had denied those motions as well.
When Defranco took the stand to testify for Salmon's defense, she presented a chart comparing killers like Davis, who'd been executed in 1997, Frank Rodriguez, Robert Harlan, Nathan Dunlap and Francisco "Pancho" Martinez, the only man sent to death row by a panel, as well as the crimes they'd committed, to Lucas Salmon and the murder of Jacine Gielinski. Salmon was young, had not committed other crimes, and therefore did not "fit the profile" of other men on death row, Defranco concluded.
After the defense rested, Jacine's parents were allowed to speak -- although they were limited in the scope of their comments. According to Judge Parish's interpretation of the Colorado Victim's Rights Law, which allows victims or their families to address the court and the defendant, the family could not make recommendations as to what sentence they thought was fair.
Peggy Luiszer, Jacine's mother, was the first to testify; she walked to the front of the courtroom carrying a small box containing her only child's ashes. Before Jacine's death, when she'd learned about murderers like Gary Davis and Nathan Dunlap, heard about their crimes, she'd thought that they didn't deserve to live and that the death penalty was a fitting punishment. But she'd never given capital punishment much thought beyond that.
Then Jacine was murdered, and Luiszer had been forced to think about capital punishment. To be honest, she wasn't sure that life in prison was a better deal than the death penalty. But the law allowing executions was on the books, and if two men deserved to die, they were Lucas Salmon and George Woldt.
She'd expected the defense attorneys to fight hard. But she wasn't prepared for how they made her feel.
For Jacine's memorial service, her friends had made hundreds of small purple ribbons. Purple was Jacine's favorite color, her high school's color. The family had found a vendor to make metal replicas of the ribbons, about an inch wide, something that would say "Remember Jacine." But on the first day of the trial, the defense attorneys had demanded that the family and the prosecutors be prohibited from wearing those ribbons; Judge Parrish had let the family keep them but had banned the prosecution from wearing the ribbons. That had seemed unnecessarily hurtful.
The defense attorneys had also insisted that the prosecution not refer to Jacine by her first name; it was too personal. Instead, she was to be referred to as "Ms. Gielinski." And while the jury got to look at Salmon every day, they were allowed to see a photograph of Jacine only once, for two minutes during the prosecution's opening statement; the defense had argued that any more would unfairly prejudice the jurors.
Before the trial, defense attorney Cleaver had called Luiszer at home to try to talk her out of supporting the death penalty. They'd talked for nearly 45 minutes, discussing motherhood and other things they had in common. Luiszer had even asked Cleaver how she would feel if the roles were reversed; "probably the same as you," Cleaver had replied. Luiszer understood that the defense attorneys were trying to save a life, understood that they didn't believe in the death penalty.
But then, at Salmon's trial and hearing, Cleaver had fawned all over Salmon, even calling him a "sweet little bunny" in her closings. That had been sickening.
Luiszer also didn't understood the rationale behind the proportionality review. How could the defense compare one murderer to another? So what if Salmon was young? He was over eighteen, the legal age for executions. Besides, Jacine had been young, too. And so what if this was his first offense? It was a horrible one.
If Woldt deserved death, so did Salmon -- although Peggy Luiszer couldn't say that to the judges. But she could speak on behalf of her daughter.
Jacine was a good person, she told the panel, someone who'd always been willing to help others, whether it was teaching a child to kick a soccer ball or gathering clothes to give to homeless shelters. "After 22 years of being a mom, this is all I have left," she said of the box filled with her daughter's remains. "I'll never be a mom again; I'll never be called 'Mom.'"
Jacine's stepfather, Robert Luiszer, who'd helped raise Jacine since she was two years old, asked the judges to reach a fair decision. "He's going to have a right to have comfort from family and friends," he said, indicating Salmon. "Jacine didn't have that right, and she didn't have that chance. She was by herself, alone. I'm not looking for revenge; I'm looking for punishment that fits the crime."
Just before closing arguments, Salmon took the stand to make the traditional apology that defense lawyers usually urge upon their clients as part of their mitigation efforts. Salmon's was a little unusual: He didn't plead for leniency, and he said he wished he'd pleaded guilty from the beginning and not let his attorneys talk him into a trial.
"It seems pretty disingenuous to apologize now for something I could have stopped two years ago," he said quietly. If he could give his life to bring Jacine back, he added, he would, "but we all know that can't be done."
In her closing, Cleaver stressed that Woldt was the one who'd come up with the idea and that Salmon had been under duress, afraid of losing his friend. In his closing, Zook countered this by reading from Salmon's confession. "We both agreed it was something we would like to do," he read, then asked, "Does this sound like duress?"
On June 24, the three judges again gathered in the El Paso County courtroom to pass judgment. In their written opinion, the panel noted up front that their decision was not a comment on the guilt or innocence of Woldt, who had yet to be tried. There was no getting around mentioning the co-defendant, however, as "Salmon's involvement is inextricably linked to Woldt's alleged involvement."
The panel agreed that the prosecution had proved most of its aggravating factors, including that the murder had been "especially heinous, cruel and depraved," as defined for Gary Davis's death sentence, in that the "acts were done in a conscienceless or pitiless manner which was unnecessarily torturous to the victim."
The judges' decision continued: "While it borders on the absurd to speak of murders in terms of their being senseless, it is noted that the more common reasons people kill each other are not apparent in this case -- for example, greed or revenge. This murder was senseless to the degree that it was for the purpose of carrying out a twisted fantasy causing enormous and unquantifiable pain and damage to others for momentary gratification."
As mitigators, the judges accepted Salmon's age and lack of maturity. And while he had lived in a religious family, attended Bible study and a Christian college and so knew that what he was doing was wrong, they said, under Woldt's "considerable domination," his ability to conform his conduct to the requirement of the law was "significantly impaired." The judges noted that Salmon's life before the murder stood in "stark contrast" to what he did to Jacine Gielinski, and also allowed that he had cooperated with the police -- at least after he was caught. But when it came to the third step in the process, the judges said there was no doubt that the aggravators far outweighed the mitigators.
"The horror of Jacine Gielinski's death is virtually incomprehensible, and it is the judgment of the panel that this aggravating factor alone outweighs the mitigation found to be present in this case," they determined. That meant that Salmon fell "within the legislatively defined category of persons eligible for the death penalty." There was only one more step, the fourth step, during which the judges had to decide whether, all things considered, Salmon deserved to die. But here they could not agree.
Judge Frasher's was the dissenting vote that saved Lucas Salmon's life. At the start of the hearing, Cleaver had tried to have Frasher removed from the panel, arguing that the former public defender had a conflict of interest because he had worked with one of Woldt's lawyers, Doug Wilson. But now he was the man who saved her client.
Frasher noted that the "presumptive sentence" -- unless proved otherwise -- was a life sentence. "I am unaware of any modern historical precedent in the State of Colorado for the execution of an individual with the characteristics of Lucas Salmon," he said. "The imposition of the death penalty on Lucas Salmon in this case would substantially lower the threshold for the imposition of the sentence of death in the state.
"It is human instinct to want to strike out at the perpetrator -- to strike out at Lucas Salmon. To smite him dead as a symbolic act of retribution and vengeance for Jacine Gielinski and her family. Additionally, there is an emotional temptation to feel that the imposition of a sentence less than death demeans the value of Jacine Gielinski's life and the profound tragedy of her death or trivializes the depth of the loss sustained by her family and friends...
"As tempting as it may be," he continued, "I am not permitted, nor should I be permitted, the luxury of seeking vengeance out of the righteous emotionality which understandably surrounds this case. It is my conclusion that I am not convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that the execution of Lucas Salmon is necessary and appropriate."
The proportionality review had swayed one judge -- and one judge was all the defense needed, as the Danny Martinez case had shown.
Judges Booth and Parrish disagreed with Frasher. Even if the crime was Woldt's idea, "Lucas Salmon willingly signed on and, in time, fully embraced the horror," Judge Booth said. "He never argued against it. Never suggested that they keep this in the realm of fantasy. Salmon's previous lifestyle was respectable, his service to others laudable, but his crimes were horrific.
"That nobody has been sentenced to death in the past twenty years in this state who has Salmon's characteristics is not surprising," Booth said. "Salmon is unique."
Arguing that Salmon didn't deserve the death penalty because he didn't fit the profile of other men on death row ignored all the aggravating factors, Judge Parrish said, "especially the horror of the crime itself in the calculus of the propriety of the death sentence in this case. The loss to the family and friends of Jacine Gielinski is enormous. Whatever action is taken by this panel, the death and manner of death of Ms. Gielinski will never be comprehensible.
"For this sentencer, the only adequate response beyond a reasonable doubt, in light of the circumstances of this case, is a measure of justice in fair and equivalent proportion to the actions of the defendant. He should be sentenced to death."
But then, as the presiding judge, Parrish also had to note that, "as this is not the unanimous conclusion of the panel, by operation of law, he is sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole."
"We'll live with the decision," Peggy Luiszer said matter-of-factly outside the courtroom. "Eventually justice will be done. I can't imagine being 23 years old and living to die in jail. He's not going to make fifty years in prison."
Others were less circumspect. El Paso DA Jeanne Smith lashed out against Judge Frasher's decision, saying it demeaned the value of Jacine's life and her family's loss. "Lucas Salmon has been given the gift of life, a gift he took from Jacine Gielinski, a gift he does not deserve," she said.
Back in 1995, Smith (who would later say that her words criticizing Frasher "were said but taken out of context") had supported the idea of a single judge, the trial judge, being responsible for death-penalty decisions. Now she suggested that Frasher, a former public defender, was simply opposed to the death penalty. "We do have judges who do not believe in the death penalty," she said. "There is an obligation under the law for any judge who believes he could not in good conscience follow the law in a case to recuse himself."
Defense attorneys were quick to come to Frasher's support. Cleaver called Smith's accusations "outrageous." Phil Cherner, vice president of the Colorado Criminal Defense Bar, told the Rocky Mountain News: "The legislature has seen fit to give this awesome task to three-judge panels. I can't imagine a decision that would be more difficult. We have a trial, a lengthy sentencing hearing, the judges come up with a decision, and then some DA in the Springs pops off and says they don't understand why he didn't get the death penalty. That's what we pay judges to do. Sometimes, Miss DA, you're going to lose."
State Senate President Ray Powers, who represented El Paso County, said he would introduce a bill in the next legislative session to change the state's death-penalty system once again, to a system that would let the trial judge decide the sentence, as Powers initially had wanted back in 1995. Too many judges were philosophically opposed to the death penalty for the current plan to work, he said. "A lot of them were defense attorneys," he added. "The judge from Pueblo was a defense attorney, which made it hard for him, when he'd been arguing against it for years."
Defense attorney Dave Kaplan, a leading opponent of the death penalty, argued that Colorado's law should never have been changed in the first place. Powers's latest proposal "irritates me to no end," he said. "Who died and made him God? Justice should not be determined on the whims of a politician or on the whims of any individual."
If anything, the state should return to allowing twelve jurors to decide death-penalty cases, he said. Prosecutors "didn't like jurors deciding because they thought it was too awesome a decision for an average citizen to make," he added. "But guess what? Judges find it a pretty awesome decision also."
It was an expensive decision, too. That August, the state reported that so far, more than $2.5 million had been spent on prosecuting -- and defending -- Robert Riggan, Jacques Richardson, Danny Martinez, Francisco Martinez and Lucas Salmon, as well as several other defendants who'd never gotten as far as a death-penalty hearing, for one reason or another.
The impact wasn't just economic; resources were strained as well. When judges were appointed to death-penalty panels, their dockets had to be shifted to other judges for the duration of the panel.
Defense attorneys said they'd warned legislators that prosecutors eager to seek the death penalty would put more defendants before those three-judge panels, adding to the state's expenses. In turn, El Paso County DA Smith, who also served as president of the Colorado District Attorneys Council, blamed rising costs on defense attorneys, claiming they were trying to get rid of the death sentence by making death-penalty cases cost-prohibitive. When a man's life was at stake, defense attorneys countered, they had the moral responsibility to incur any cost necessary to make the state prove its case.
On June 30, 1998, William Lee "Cody" Neal went to a building-supply store, where he purchased, among other things, eyebolts, duct tape, rope and a seven-pound maul (half ax, half sledgehammer). He then returned to a townhouse on West Chenango Drive outside Morrison, where he'd lived since July 1996 with 44-year-old Rebecca Holberton.
A consummate liar, Neal, 42, who'd hinted to friends and acquaintances both that he was a bounty hunter and a hit man for the mob, owed Holberton, a divorcee who worked for US West, more than $70,000. Now she wanted the money back, she told friends, as a prelude for getting Neal out of her life. She was already renovating the townhouse, which had butcher paper taped over the windows and just plywood flooring in the living and dining rooms.
After he returned from the store, Neal sat Holberton in a chair in the living room, telling her he had "a surprise" for her. He placed a briefcase on her lap, intimating that it contained her missing money, and a blanket over her head. Then he crushed Holberton's skull with the blunt side of the maul.
On July 3, Neal brought another divorced woman, Candace Walters, 48, whom he'd conned into loaning him about $6,000, to the townhouse. At the urging of her daughter, Holly, Walters had been trying to learn more about the "mystery man" Neal played to the hilt. But Walters, who worked as a waitress and needed her money, also half-believed his tales about the large amount of money he was about to receive; Neal had even convinced her to sell her car in anticipation of the car she'd receive, along with her money, when they went to Las Vegas to collect his funds. But first, he said, he had "a surprise" for her, too.
Neal sat Walters in the living room. She refused to put her head under the blanket -- she didn't want to muss her hair -- but Neal still managed to sneak up on her, striking her several times in the head with the ax side of the maul. He then urinated on her corpse, placed a plastic bag over her head, wrapped her in a blanket and put the body by the fireplace -- not far from where Holberton's body was wrapped in plastic bags.
Using money obtained with Walters's debit card, Neal took a girlfriend and her roommate, 21-year-old "Suzanne," out for a night on the town.
On July 5, Neal picked up Suzanne, who'd promised to do a job for him: accompany him to Las Vegas to sign some papers with his attorneys. But first, he said, he had "a surprise" to show her at the townhouse.
Once inside, Neal forced Suzanne onto a mattress on the floor, bound her, spread-eagled, with her wrists and ankles tied to four eyebolts he'd screwed into the floor, and cut her clothes off with a knife. To further terrorize her, he placed a piece of skull, bloody hair still attached, on Suzanne's naked stomach, showed her Walters's leg and kicked a plastic-wrapped mound to demonstrate that there was a body there as well. Then he covered Suzanne with a blanket and, warning her not to make a sound, or "others" would come into the room to rape and kill her, left the townhouse .
Next, Neal picked up Angela Fite, a 28-year-old mother of two who was trying to escape an abusive marriage when she met Neal. Her "rescuer" brought her back to the townhouse, which she believed was the "surprise" home he'd promised for her and her children. But now Neal duct-taped Fite to a chair facing the mattress on the ground. "Welcome to my mortuary," he said, showing her the bodies of Holberton and Walters.
Then Neal pulled back the blanket to reveal Suzanne. "We're not going to get out of here alive, are we?" Fite said, looking at the other woman. Still, Neal took his time, even giving Fite a cigarette before announcing that he had to go feed his cat. He came back with the maul and struck Fite repeatedly -- at least six times -- as Suzanne watched in horror.
Neal picked Fite's cigarette off the floor and finished it. Then he untied Suzanne and, holding a pistol to her head, forced her to perform oral sex. After that, he made her return to the mattress, where he raped her. The next morning, Neal took Suzanne to her apartment; he'd told her he'd let her live as his "witness" if she cooperated. And there, for several days, Neal held Suzanne, his girlfriend and a male friend of the women, who'd declined to leave once he saw that they were in trouble, at gunpoint. He made Suzanne tell the others about what she'd seen at his "mortuary" and recorded a rambling confession.
On Saturday, July 8, Neal called Steve Grund, a friend and television newscaster, and told him what he'd done. He then left the three hostages, giving them his pager number and explicit instructions regarding how they were to contact the police; if they didn't follow those instructions, he warned, he might return to kill them. One of the instructions was that after they called the police, they were to sit on the grass outside the apartment. But the women were so frightened that he might change his mind, that his leaving was a cruel trick, that they remained inside.
Even as Neal was making his arrangements, the bodies of the three murdered women were discovered. Holberton's co-workers had grown concerned when she didn't show up for work and had asked the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office to conduct a welfare check. A deputy went to the townhouse and, failing to get an answer at the front door, went around to the back, where a sliding glass door led into the dining room.
The deputy opened the door a crack and called out. Getting no answer, he opened the door a little further -- but stopped before entering. "I was overwhelmed by a sense of evil," the deputy later testified. "It was just one of those scenes where you know you just don't want to be there...A wave of evil hit me. It looked like a torture chamber where somebody had suffered." The deputy called for help.
Mark Pautler, a deputy district attorney, was at home on call when he got word to report to a crime scene that would later turn out to be a murder-suicide. Before leaving, he called the sheriff's dispatch to check on the status of a search warrant so that he could enter the scene. "Which scene?" the dispatcher asked. That's when Pautler learned there'd been another apparent murder, this one at a townhouse at West Chenango Drive.
Pautler went first to the murder-suicide scene with a search warrant, then reported to the West Chenango townhouse, where he discussed the situation with the lead police investigator while they waited for a search warrant. Pautler decided to find out what he could looking through the sliding doors.
The prosecutor had seen some grisly, disturbing crime scenes during his sixteen years with the Jeffco DA's office, but this one jumped ahead of all others. The body of a young woman sat in a chair facing the door, staring with sightless eyes. A blanket covered part of her, but Pautler could see that she had been duct-taped to the chair; there was a terrible-looking wound to her head, and blood was pooled on a blanket and the floor. He could see another body by the fireplace; a white plastic bag had been put over what looked like the head, and it was filled with blood. What appeared to be a third body was wrapped in plastic garbage bags by a wall.
At that point, all the police had was the name of one of the possible victims, Rebecca Holberton, who owned the property; no one knew who the killer might be. Canvassing the neighborhood, police had learned that a man lived at the apartment, but none of the neighbors remembered his name.
But then Grund contacted the sheriff's office, and Jeffco authorities had their suspect. A few minutes later, they got a call from the Denver Police Department, which said it had three kidnap victims -- one of whom said she'd been raped and forced to watch a murder committed by Cody Neal. Pautler headed off to interview those victims, leaving Charlie Tingle, who'd later be assigned as lead prosecutor on Neal's case, to walk through the townhouse with sheriff's investigators. They noted the blood and brain matter on the floors and walls. There was even blood on the ceiling, left there when Neal swung the maul up in an arc before bringing it crashing back down.
By the time Pautler reached Denver, Suzanne was in a squad car, talking with a detective. The Jeffco DA spoke with DPD investigators and the other two hostages, who told him what they and Suzanne had witnessed. Pautler learned that there was a tape-recorded confession; he also heard that Neal had a handgun and, because shells had been found, was presumed to have a shotgun as well. The investigators were concerned enough about Neal returning to shoot the witnesses that they moved the interviews out of any potential line of fire.
It was early evening by the time the detectives were ready to page Neal and try to get him to give himself up.
Neal returned the page from a cellular telephone, speaking first to his girlfriend and then to Jeffco sheriff's investigator Cheryl Zimmerman. Neal talked to Zimmerman for about an hour, while Pautler and other detectives listened to her side of the conversation and read the notes she was taking. Neal was up and down: One minute he was the great killer, scion of a Mafia family (he is actually the son of an Air Force officer); the next he was calmly asking if he could have cigarettes and a private cell if he surrendered; then suddenly he'd be back claiming that he'd already murdered 500 people and would kill again if provoked.
After that first hour, Neal asked to speak to a specific lawyer. It so happened that Pautler knew that lawyer and knew that the man had given up the law and was now a Denver sous chef. They called his former office anyway, only to get a message that he was no longer practicing.
After that information was relayed to Neal, he asked for a public defender. This request worried the police: A public defender might tell Neal to quit talking or might try to cut deals to get him to surrender. Nobody wanted Neal on the streets for a moment longer than necessary. The police were already concerned that they might lose contact with him; he was on a cell phone that could cut out at any minute, and no one knew where he was or if he was planning more killings. They did know he was armed.
Since Neal was not yet in custody, he did not have the right to an attorney. In fact, this was still a police case -- and police may lie in order to apprehend someone who is a danger to the public. But Neal was obviously intelligent, at least in a street-smart sense, and they recognized that he might trip up a cop posing as an attorney. To buy time, Pautler wrote Zimmerman a note saying she should tell Neal that a public defender would be available in twenty minutes. He then called his boss, Jefferson County District Attorney Dave Thomas, to ask about posing as that public defender.
Both knew that if Pautler impersonated a public defender, it could have repercussions not only on the case, but on Pautler's career. Pautler believed that he could make legal arguments for the deception, however. As a deputy district attorney, he was a sworn peace officer with the authority of a police officer, including the ability to make arrests and conduct investigations. And he also knew that the code of professional conduct governing attorneys' actions -- including rules prohibiting deception -- were not hard and fast. But there was no guarantee that a court would agree if defense attorneys appealed Neal's case because of Pautler's actions or brought his behavior up to the Colorado Supreme Court as an ethics violation.
Thomas believed that having Pautler masquerade as a public defender was the best course of action, but he left the decision to his chief deputy. With visions of the crime scene fresh in his mind, Pautler decided that the public's safety outweighed his personal risk. He wrote Zimmerman another note, this one saying that she should tell Neal that public defender "Mark Palmer" had arrived.
Zimmerman handed Pautler the telephone. He was careful to avoid any discussion of constitutional issues, such as Neal's rights, and instead told the killer that he was "looking at some pretty heavy stuff." Neal agreed. "I'm one of the most dangerous people you will ever have the chance to represent," the killer said. "This is not a game."
As the conversation continued, the Jeffco SWAT team was gearing up to nab Neal when the moment came. It arrived a couple of hours later, when Neal drove Holberton's SUV into the parking lot of a Target store. He was taken down at gunpoint; a handgun and shotgun, along with items belonging to his victims, were found in the vehicle he'd been driving.
When advised of his Miranda rights, Neal didn't ask to speak to Mark Palmer or any other attorney. The next day, Jim Aber and Willy Rios of the public defender's office in Golden were appointed to represent him.
But Neal didn't want any lawyers. He wanted to represent himself pro se, which was his right under Colorado law. Claiming he desired to spare his victims and their families the ordeal of a trial, he said he would plead guilty to rape, robbery and kidnapping, as well as three charges of first-degree murder after deliberation, which he knew would expose him to a potential death-penalty hearing. Neal even gave videotaped interviews to sheriff's investigators, waiving his right to have an attorney present. And he confessed to members of the media, too, saying, among other things, that he'd killed the women to avoid having his thefts exposed.
In September 1998, after the preliminary hearing at which Neal was ordered to stand trial, Aber hinted at a possible defense. "Why would he commit murder to avoid being charged with theft?" the public defender asked. But then Neal wrote a number of letters to the court, repeating his demand that he represent himself.
By February 1999, Neal had succeeded in firing Aber and Rios, although he agreed to accept private defense attorney Randy Canney as advisory counsel. And on February 25, acting as his own attorney, Neal pleaded guilty "without a doubt" to the thirteen counts he faced, including the three first-degree-murder charges.
During the hour-long hearing, Judge Thomas Woodford repeatedly asked Neal if he would reconsider and allow an attorney to represent him. Neal refused. The judge asked Neal if he understood that his guilty plea carried only two possible sentences: life in prison without parole or death by lethal injection. He'd been examined by a court-appointed psychiatrist, Neal told the judge, and "he didn't see any reason why I was not competent."
After the hearing, DA Thomas announced that his office would seek the death penalty -- an announcement that met with immediate recriminations from defense attorneys. Going for the death penalty when a defendant was representing himself was "state-sanctioned suicide," said attorney David Lane, a longtime opponent of the death penalty.
"This is a total farce," Aber said. "Seeking the death penalty against a person not represented by counsel is like trying to kill an unarmed man. There is no morality or justice in this."
But prosecutors pointed out that declining to seek the death penalty for alleged murderers who chose to represent themselves could, in effect, negate the death penalty as a possible sentence: All a defendant would have to do in order to avoid being sentenced to death was demand to defend himself.
Thomas said he would have preferred that Neal have a lawyer. In deciding to represent himself, Neal almost guaranteed that appellate lawyers would be able to argue that he'd had incompetent counsel; if an appeals court agreed, then Jeffco would have to go through the death-penalty hearing, and possibly an entire trial, all over again.
Even though Neal didn't want a lawyer, Canney continued to try to act as one. He had wanted to be a criminal defense lawyer all his life; he liked the idea of fighting for the underdog. His first obligation was to make the prosecution prove its case, but he felt the job went further than that. It was up to him to present his client as a human being, not a monster.
That's what he'd tried to do with Frank Vigil, his first client tried for first-degree murder. It wasn't a death-penalty case -- although two of Vigil's co-defendants, Danny Martinez and Francisco "Pancho" Martinez, had faced the panels -- but he'd still felt the weight of having the young man's life in his hands. It hadn't been easy talking with Vigil's mother, knowing that he couldn't offer much hope that she'd ever have her son, then only seventeen, back home again. And it wasn't easy trying to explain his client's role in the crime while fourteen-year-old Brandy DuVall's family was sitting in court, listening to every word.
Now he had to stand by while Neal refused to do anything to help himself. Canney believed that Neal was insane and had been when he'd committed the crimes. Just days before the death-penalty hearing was scheduled to begin, the attorney appealed to Judge Woodford, requesting that Neal be tested again for mental competency. At the hearing, Canney even called Neal's sister, Sharon, the one family member still talking to him, who over a speaker phone testified that her brother would go "from being rational to incoherent in the same conversation" and talked about being "a prophet of God." But Woodford denied Canney's motions, saying Neal had showed no signs of mental disease in any of his multiple court appearances.
So on September 20, 1999, William Lee "Cody" Neal shuffled into the courtroom in the standard-issue Halloween-orange jumpsuit, white T-shirt and socks, and blue slippers. Hunched over as he waited for the deputy to unlock the handcuffs behind him, he glanced at the spectator gallery.
If looks could kill, Neal would have crumpled immediately to the floor. The families and friends of his victims filled three rows behind the prosecution table and even spilled over to the other side. The one victim who'd survived his rampage, a pretty, young blonde, leaned against her mother's protective shoulder.
There wasn't enough space in the courtroom for everyone who wanted to watch the hearing. The victims' friends and families had been seated first. The first row on the other side, immediately behind the defense table, was kept clear by the deputies in charge of court security -- as much for Neal's safety as anything else. The second row was reserved for Neal's family, of which no members were present, as well as Neal's supporters, of which there were few, and associates and colleagues of the defense counsel, including Jim Aber, the chief deputy state public defender.
Neal sat down next to Canney, his advisory counsel. In front of him on the defense table were arranged a dictionary, yellow legal pads for notes, a neat row of pens and a television monitor.
Those assembled in the courtroom rose as the three judges -- Jefferson County presiding judge Thomas Woodford and Frank Martinez and William Meyer, both from Denver -- entered and took their seats at the enlarged dais built just for death-penalty hearings. In the preceding five months, Jefferson County had already had three such hearings. First had come Robert Lee Riggan Jr., who'd been spared in April. Then Daniel "Bang" Martinez Jr., who had been spared in May. In June, at the third hearing, Francisco "Pancho" Martinez Jr. had been sentenced to death. Few in the courtroom expected Neal to escape the same fate.
Now Chief Deputy District Attorney Charles Tingle rose to deliver the prosecution's opening statements. At the table behind him were Deputy District Attorney Chris Bachmeyer and the lead investigator in the case, Jose Aceves.
Rebecca Holberton, Candace Walters and Angela Fite were all vulnerable in one way or another, Tingle began, "in search of happiness, and he preyed upon each one of them. He promised to rescue them emotionally and financially. But he was a phony. A master manipulator...and he sucked them in with his lies and deceit."
Since there had been no trial, Neal's case hadn't been as physically demanding as some -- but it had involved a lot more than Tingle's regular duties. He'd had more contact with Neal than anyone except for Aceves. As a pro se defendant, Neal had the right to discuss legal matters with the prosecutor, and he took full advantage of his cell-phone privileges, calling Tingle four or five times a week. To keep things running smoothly -- and to stave off potential appeals -- Tingle had made sure that Neal's requests were met.
In his fifteen years as a prosecutor, the forty-year-old Tingle had never run into anyone like Neal. The defendant was extremely intelligent, at least in his niche as a pathological liar and sociopath. He was also very meticulous, putting together a stack of case law regarding the death penalty in the United States that was eighteen inches thick. From their conversations, it was clear that Neal had read every page of it, as well as the thousands and thousands of pages of discovery. And if there was something he couldn't read or a clarification he needed, Neal would stay after Tingle until he got what he wanted. The day before the hearing, Neal had reminded him that there were several outstanding telephone bills for calls he'd made to his sister, Sharon, and two friends.
Of course, given the methodical way Neal had gone about the business of murdering three women and raping a fourth, his organizational skills shouldn't have come as a surprise. If there was one thing that stood out about the murders, beyond their horrific brutality, it was the incredible, multilayered web of lies and details that Neal had spun to snare his victims.
One of Tingle's greatest fears was that Neal would be underestimated. By the courts. By his jailers. Even by the prosecutors. So Tingle had decided to consider anything that came out of Neal's mouth, no matter how seemingly innocent, as an attempt to manipulate them.
In their dealings, Neal had always been courteous and respectful ...ingratiatingly so. It made Tingle's skin crawl to hear the defendant talk as though they were on the same team. But then, he'd seen for himself what Neal had done: He'd walked through the townhouse while the bodies were still there. He'd prosecuted more than a dozen murder cases, all with their own crime scenes, but none came close to Neal's carnage. To even look at Neal without revulsion, in his mind Tingle had to separate the ax murderer from the jailhouse lawyer.
The 41-year-old Bachmeyer had spent the past couple of years working domestic-violence cases. Her first impression of Neal was that he had an almost desperate need to be liked. But then she felt his behavior toward her go beyond friendliness to flirting, testing how she would respond as a woman. Her response was that he gave her the creeps. It bothered her that to the public, Neal's victims might appear gullible, even witless for believing his outlandish stories and going off to slaughter like sheep. She knew that the victims were intelligent, caring women. They hadn't engaged in behavior that put them at risk: They didn't hang out with gangs, they weren't prostitutes or drug addicts, they didn't go out with strangers. Their only fault was that they were too trusting.
And in court this morning, she and Tingle had noticed something different about Neal: The killer and rapist was wearing a new gold wedding band. A few days before the trial, a local jeweler had alerted Tingle that Neal was trying to buy a set of rings; apparently he was going to marry his new girlfriend, a "trust-fund baby" in Phoenix who sent him money regularly and had even been up to visit him in jail.
Incredible: Even behind bars, Neal was still able to cast his spells. Ted Bundy, the serial killer executed in 1989 whose exploits were favored reading material for Neal, had married while on death row -- but at least that woman had been able to convince herself that her groom was innocent. With Neal's confession, no such fantasy was possible. Tingle wondered if the "wedding" was just another ploy to manipulate the judges, as well as a way to continue to control some poor woman.
In the final analysis, Tingle believed that Neal's demand to represent himself was a control issue. He simply had to be in control of everything. In control of the women. In control of their money, their emotions, their lives. He'd tied his rape victim to a bed to control her. And now he was exercising the ultimate control -- over the decision of whether he lived or died.
After Tingle finished his opening statement, Neal stood and shuffled over to the lectern. The freedom to move across the courtroom was part of a deal he'd worked out in order to be his own lawyer, but the deputies came a couple of steps closer, just in case. Before he could start speaking, Woodford issued a warning: While opening statements were not considered evidence in any trial, just an outline of what each side intended to present, whatever Neal said could be used against him. He'd retained his right to remain silent, the judge reminded him.
Neal adjusted the microphone. It was "September 20, 1999, Monday morning, a day that's much more to some, much less to others," he said. It was Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, a "special day" for "reconciliation, forgiveness...peace."
From the victims' side of the courtroom came angry murmurs, but Neal continued. "This is one of the most horrendous things I ever heard of," he said of his own crimes. "How could someone do what I have done? I wish I could say I was innocent. There is no excuse for this crime. I can't wash my hands enough for this."
He was guilty as charged. "Mr. Tingle is an honorable man, and he speaks the truth," Neal said. "He has been honest with me and did not exaggerate anything. I would not change what he said, except maybe to fill in some blanks." And by doing so, he added, he would be the voice for "three wonderful, trusting, beautiful women."
He had been molested as a child, Neal said, an excuse that led him to point the blame at others while he "served only Satan." But now he was a changed man, a man who'd recently reaffirmed his "belief in the Lord, my God." He wanted to live so that he could "zealously" serve Jesus in prison.
"Even a wretched life means something," he implored the judges. "Even a wretched life can change. I do not want to die, for I know I've turned around."
However, if the judges decided he should die, Neal said, "I will submit fully...remembering special moments" with his victims.
In his opening, Tingle hadn't really outlined the aggravators the state would try to prove. So now Neal did it for him. The crime was "especially heinous, cruel and depraved," he said. "That's an accurate assessment."
He'd killed two or more people by "lying in wait." True. He'd "intentionally" killed two or more people with "universal malice and extreme indifference to the value of human life." True. He'd killed a kidnapped person. True. He'd killed to prevent prosecution. True: "That's what precipitated the whole thing." And he'd killed for monetary gain. "Yes," he concluded, "all of the aggravating factors are present."
As for mitigators, Neal said, there were only three, starting with his age. Although he was 42 at the time of the crime, his troubled past had left him "a child...hiding and stalking...scared of being punished for what he had been doing and what he had become." As a result, he could not "appreciate the wrongfulness" of his conduct," he said, then added, "I knew that what I was going to do was wrong and chose to do it anyway." Only halfheartedly, he contended that he might have been under "unusual and substantial duress" at the time of the crimes. "I've been through a lot of tough times in my life, but I don't see it."
After that, Neal's opening, the hearing moved quickly. Tingle and Bachmeyer presented the evidence of the crimes. Neal's rape victim took the stand and bravely recounted the horrors of her ordeal. Through it all, Neal sat listening, declining to cross-exam the witnesses, while his counsel, Canney, sat silently stewing. When it came time to present his case for mitigation, Neal called only a few witnesses, including Byron Plumley, an adjunct professor of religion at Regis University, who testified that Neal's conversion seemed genuine.
On September 29, 1999, the three judges returned with their verdict. In their deliberations, they had determined that the state had proved all of its aggravators. Then they'd rejected all of Neal's mitigators. More than that, they'd rejected everything Neal had to say for himself.
They didn't believe that he'd been sexually assaulted. They doubted his remorse: "William Neal is so self-absorbed that his capacity for remorse is questionable," they determined. Even his religious conversion "is suspect given the timing.
"William Neal claims to be a changed man and, therefore, requests mercy. William Neal cannot point to the past as a basis for mercy but asks the panel to trust him in his promise toward the future. This panel is unwilling to do so. The panel relies upon the past as the best predictor of the future. William Neal's plea rings hollow in light of his past deceits and evil deeds."
Judge Anderson read the verdict as Neal stared straight ahead. The "only penalty for the brutal, needless killing visited upon these kind and lovely ladies," the judge pronounced, "is death."
A few minutes later, Canney stood in the hallway outside the courtroom. "I don't know if Cody is so wrought with guilt that he felt he had to represent himself," he told reporters. "It may be part of his mental illness."
The victims' families gathered downstairs. "This brings some closure, but it does not bring back my mom, Angela or Rebecca," Holly Walters said.
"This is not going to be over for us for a very, very long time," said Wayne Fite, Angela's father.
Both said they planned to attend Neal's execution. "To the end," added Wayne. "To the end," echoed Holly.
In December 1999, David Kaplan was appointed to what he called "the best job in the world" -- heading the state public defender's office. He'd worked as a public defender from 1983 to 1987 before leaving for private practice. Now he would oversee a staff of 200 trial lawyers, 21 appellate attorneys, 62 investigators and 51 office workers, with 21 offices statewide serving indigent clients. It was one of the most aggressive and well-financed public-defender systems in the country.
Kaplan replaced David Vela, who'd chosen not to seek reappointment. The new chief told the Denver Post that it had been his boyhood dream to become a criminal defense lawyer after reading attorney F. Lee Bailey's The Defense Never Rests.
When people asked how he could defend killers and rapists such as Francisco Martinez, Kaplan said he would tell them, "Humanity is in every person we defend. People are rarely 100 percent evil." One of his agency's main roles was to keep the power of government in check, he said. He also hoped to see death-penalty decisions taken away from three-judge panels and returned to jurors.
Kaplan wasn't the only one dissatisfied with the panels.
A month before George Woldt was scheduled to go on trial in March 2000, the legislature was considering two dueling bills. As promised, state senator Ray Powers had introduced a measure that would give sentencing responsibilities to a single trial judge. The "will of the people" was being subverted, the lawmaker said, since with the panels a single individual could circumvent justice and the will of the majority.
"Single judges have been stopping death sentences based more on philosophical objections to the death penalty rather than the merits of the case," Powers said. "I need only refer to the Colorado Springs murder of Jacine Gielinski. The young girl was abducted by two killers who took turns raping her before they stabbed and strangled her. After her torturous ordeal came to a fatal end, the two savages exchanged high fives."
Yet the decision of one judge had outweighed the other two on the panel, and Lucas Salmon's life had been spared. Adding insult to injury, the citizens of Colorado would now have to pay millions of dollars "to defend, clothe, house and feed these brutal murderers" over the course of their lives.
Powers's bill was supported by El Paso DA Smith, as well as Peggy Luiszer, who was gearing up for Woldt's trial. She'd felt sorry for the jurors who'd decided Salmon's case; they had seemed "so emotionally distraught and physically run down."
But another bill was calling for the death-penalty decision to be returned to jurors. "The conscience of the people is better represented by a jury of twelve than a panel of three judges," said state senator Dottie Wham, a Republican from Denver. That measure was supported by the Colorado Bar Association and the Colorado Trial Lawyers Association, as well as the state public defender's office.
Neither bill ended up making it out of committee.
In the meantime, George Woldt was convicted of first-degree murder after deliberation and various other charges.
So in September 2000, a panel of judges -- this time including trial judge Richard Hall and appointed judges Douglas Anderson and Larry Schwartz, all of El Paso County -- convened for the state's seventh death-penalty hearing under the system approved by the legislature in 1995.
This time, prosecutors were not allowed to show their six-minute videotape. Hall ruled that the crime-scene photographs -- which had made Woldt cry when he was shown them in court -- were enough.
Woldt was represented by public defenders Doug Wilson and Terri Brake, who had most recently represented killer Robert Harlan, crying while she delivered opening statements, begging -- futilely, as it turned out -- that his life be spared. Now she and her co-counsel argued that Woldt's life should be spared because he had suffered a brain lesion that had impaired his judgment. He also suffered from an obsessive-compulsive disorder stemming from his abused childhood, they said.
They brought in several experts to testify, including Dr. Jonathan Pincus, a Washington, D.C., neurologist. He said he'd interviewed 150 to 200 convicted murderers, many of them on death row, and found that their crimes involved a combination of three factors: mental illness, physical and/or sexual abuse as a child, and neurological disorder. Woldt had all three, he testified. Pincus had presented much the same evidence at the trial, but jurors later said they didn't believe it. "I thought [the brain-lesion evidence] was a joke," said one.
But here, as at Salmon's death-penalty hearing, the defense attorneys were allowed to introduce "proportionality" evidence. Rather than calling a witness, this time the defense had put together a large book comparing the cases of other men on death row. They argued that Salmon had been the leader in the crime and had inflicted the fatal blows. Since Salmon had received a life sentence, they told the judges, singling Woldt out for a harsher punishment would be unfair.
The prosecution had rebutted the brain-damage and personality-disorder testimony with its own experts. And this time, they were better prepared to counter the proportionality review with a review of their own, demonstrating how both Woldt and his crimes "fit the profile" of other killers on death row. While all the evidence pointed to the men being equally culpable in the crime, "It was Woldt's idea," they argued.
Yet again, Jacine's family members had to recount their loss. Peggy Luiszer, clutching the box containing her daughter's ashes, once again tried to explain to strangers who Jacine had been.
She was as repulsed by the defense attorneys as she had been at Salmon's hearing. They'd had mutual acquaintances try to talk Luiszer out of backing the DA's pursuit of the death penalty for Woldt. That just seemed low to her.
No one seemed to care that her whole world had been turned upside down except the prosecutors, and they were busy trying to win their case. She couldn't bring herself to go back to work, or even to travel alone very far from her home. She couldn't be alone with a man without feeling panic. Even the touch of a loved one gave her the "creeps." When her husband touched her, all she could see was Salmon and Woldt on top of her daughter, doing the things they had done to Jacine. But how could she explain all of that to three judges? And even if she managed, would it matter?
After the defense rested its case, Woldt apologized. The smooth talker, the confidant ladies' man, was gone, and he handled himself with far less dignity than had the friend he'd talked into helping carry out his terrible fantasy. Crying and sniffling, Woldt told the judges that he had become a Christian. If allowed to live, he said, he would "honor God, read the Bible and help others."
"I don't want to die," he pleaded. "Everyone knows that I did a horrible thing." Then he turned to Jacine's family. "I'm sorry I took her away from you," he said. "I'm sorry for the last three and a half years. I don't know what I can say. 'Sorry,' it's not even good enough for me when I say this. Nothing I say, nothing I do is going to make this better. I'm sorry for what I did to you, I'm sorry."
In her closing arguments, defense attorney Brake said Woldt was "not an evil person; he did a very evil thing."
But Zook noted that the cruelty of the crime far outweighed any possible mitigating factors. "You know the evil he has done," he said. And then he repeated a line that prosecutor Eva Wilson had used six years earlier, when she'd asked a jury to sentence Nathan Dunlap to death: "If not this case, what case? If not now, when? And if not this defendant, who?"
On September 6, 2000, the judges answered those questions: Woldt would die.
"The panel was struck by the senseless brutality inflicted by Woldt and Salmon on Jacine Gielinski," the judges wrote in a 62-page decision. "She was forced to suffer unspeakable pain and anguish during the time that she was held hostage. The kidnappers wholly ignored her pleas for mercy and the pitiful suffering she was enduring at their hands. It is obvious that Jacine Gielinski was merely a physical object to Woldt and Salmon, necessary to act out their mutual fantasy to kidnap, rape and kill, leaving no room for the least amount of human compassion for her plight.
"The fact that they apparently exchanged high fives at the conclusion of Jacine's killing speaks volumes of their lack of humanity toward her."
Peggy Luiszer clutched a photograph of her daughter and cried as she heard the sentence. Afterward, she praised the judges. "They saw the truth for what it was, and I think the judges made the right decision," she said. "I think they should have done it in Salmon's case, also, but that's over and done with.
"I hope he's scared to death and thinking about his daughter and son...and when the time comes for him to be put to death that he remembers how he treated Jacine and maybe how she felt that night."
This time, DA Smith had nothing but praise for the judges and for her prosecution team, on whose lives this case had taken an "enormous toll." The sentence, she said, "reaffirms that Colorado's death penalty will be used for these most heinous crimes. We do not rejoice in seeing another person die, but it is truly the only just punishment for someone like George Woldt, who was willing to rape, torture and murder merely for the sport of killing."
A week after he was sentenced to death, Woldt, who had been placed on a suicide watch, refused to attend his sentencing hearing for the other charges brought in the case, including the attempted kidnap of jogger Amber Gonzales. Woldt's defense attorney, Doug Wilson, said he didn't want his client to have to deal with being confronted by Gonzales.
For the third time out of seven tries, a panel of judges had sentenced a man to die. In order to reach that decision, they'd determined that certain murderers were more deserving of the death penalty than others. Like Frank "Pancho" Martinez and Cody Neal, George Woldt was one of those murderers.
Next week: In the conclusion of "Penalty Zone," Donta Page fights for his life after taking the life of Peyton Tuthill.
Read more Westword coverage of the Colorado Death Penalty in The Penalty Zone
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Denver, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.