With only one execution logged in the past 45 years, Colorado's death penalty is practically on life support itself -- and about to be severely tested by three high-profile cases in coming months. Yet the man who might, in effect, pull the plug on the practice in our state isn't some steely eyed nun or bleeding-heart governor, but an unlikely convert to the cause: Bob Autobee, the father of a corrections officer bludgeoned to death by an inmate in 2002.
Over more than a decade since then, Bob Autobee has experienced firsthand the interminable delays and ordeals of a capital case.
Already serving a life sentence for killing his infant daughter, Edward Montour Jr. attacked 23-year-old Eric Autobee at the Limon Correctional Facility with a heavy ladle he'd obtained from the prison kitchen. It was the first inmate killing of an officer in the DOC in 73 years. Montour pleaded guilty to first-degree murder, but the Colorado Supreme Court threw out his death sentence in 2007 because it hadn't been imposed by a jury. Last year, defense attorneys managed to get his guilty plea thrown out as well, contending that he hadn't been mentally competent to represent himself and received ineffective counsel, setting up a four-month retrial (and attempt to reinstate the death penalty) in Douglas County that starts with jury selection today.
I've written before about the senior Autobee, a retired Department of Corrections employee himself, and his growing frustration with the missteps and delays in the case, which prompted him to "drop out" of Montour's prosecution in 2012 and subsequently forgive his son's killer and denounce the attempt to execute Montour as a costly and "colossal mistake."
In recent weeks, Autobee has stepped up his campaign, releasing a video excerpt of an unusual "restorative justice" meeting between the victim's father and Montour, showing Montour apologizing for the killing and Autobee offering forgiveness. He's also announced his intention to protest at the courthouse during the four-month trial.
Since Montour, who has a long history of mental health problems, had offered to plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence in solitary confinement, Autobee has contended that the money "wasted" on a death-penalty prosecution could be better spend on improving security measures for prison staff.
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But for Eighteen Judicial District Attorney George Brauchler -- who vowed to reserve the death penalty for only the most heinous cases when he ran for office in 2012 -- the long-simmering Montour prosecution is a kind of tune-up for what promises to be an even more convoluted, drawn-out capital case, riddled with mental-illness claims: the James Holmes trial. Brauchler's office has been relatively tight-lipped in response to the broadsides from the Autobee family, asserting blandly that justice must be served.
But can prosecutors obtain the ultimate penalty in a case where the outrage of the victim's family is directed at the system, not the killer? Check out the video, below.
More from our Prison Life archive circa February 2013: "Edward Montour case: Was inmate a 'volunteer' for the death penalty?"