Prosecutors in southeastern Colorado are seeking execution for a 36-year-old inmate in the 2012 murder of corrections officer Mary Ricard at the Arkansas Valley Correctional Facility. The announcement came this week during a court hearing in the long-delayed case — despite persistent pleas from members of Ricard's family not to pursue the death penalty for her alleged killer.
Investigators say inmate Miguel Contreras-Perez fatally stabbed Ricard and badly injured another female officer in the prison kitchen. Ricard's daughter, Katie Smith, says that she and other family members have met with Sixteenth Judicial District Attorney Jim Bullock several times and have been frustrated by Bullock's determination to make it a capital case.
"We had begged the district attorney to offer life without parole," she says. "Their constant rebuttal to us is that we are not the only victims. They're claiming that the [Colorado] Department of Corrections is a victim in my mother's case. My opinion is that the the DOC could have prevented the murder to begin with."
DOC administrators have been sharply criticized for allowing Contreras-Perez to work in the prison kitchen, where he had access to a butcher knife and other weapons. A native of El Salvador, Contreras-Perez is currently serving a sentence of 35 years to life for kidnapping and raping a fourteen-year-old girl in 2002; he also had a history of harassing female staff at the prison before Ricard's murder. He reportedly boasted that the attack on the female officers was "all about the body count."
The case bears strong similarities to a previous murder in the Limon prison kitchen a decade earlier, when Edward Montour, an inmate with a history of mental problems, fatally attacked officer Eric Autobee with a heavy soup ladle. In that case, the victim's parents became disillusioned by the prosecution's multiyear effort to seek the death penalty; Autobee's father Bob even picketed the courthouse in protest. Thirteenth Judicial District Attorney George Brauchler ultimately took death off the table and agreed a sentence of life without parole — but only after the badly flawed case had progressed to trial.
Although Colorado currently has three people on its moribund death row, the state hasn't had an actual execution in nearly two decades. Three times in the past few years prosecutors have sought the ultimate penalty for homicides that occurred inside state prisons, arguing that they need to send a "strong message" that such violence won't go unpunished. All three were unsuccessful. Critics of the death penalty say that chasing it drags out the ordeal for victims' families over years of appeals, even if a DA can persuade a jury to vote for execution — which didn't happen even in the James Holmes case. Smith says she doesn't want to see the proceedings drag on in her mother's case, for many reasons.
"Had they killed him in the act of attacking people, I'm okay with that," she says. "But three and a half years later, why would they try to justify killing him? In court they mentioned the Attorney General's Office, they mentioned DOC. Not once did they mention my mother's name. It's all political."
According to Smith, the officer who survived the attack doesn't support death for Contreras-Perez — and her mother wouldn't, either. "My mother was very passionate about working with inmates," she says. "Her brother was in prison from the time he was fourteen until he was forty; he couldn't come out to society and stay out. She wanted to make a difference in inmates' lives."
Contreras-Perez has fired his attorneys twice and currently has no legal representation. A judge entered a plea of not guilty on his behalf several weeks ago.
District Attorney Jim Bullock has not yet responded to a request for comment. We will update this post if we hear from him.
Here is the entirety of Katie Smith's statement in response to this week's decision.
Today is a sad day for our family. As the daughter of Sergeant Mary Ricard, I am disgusted with the justice system. Colorado's justice system is neither swift nor just. It has been over three years since my mother's murder. There have been countless court hearings pertaining to my mother's murder, yet nothing has been resolved. Now, after many communications with the district attorney's office, the Crowley County District Attorney has disregarded our family's request to not pursue the Death Penalty. They have chosen to not respect our wishes and will continue to revictimize our family for at least the next few years with their decision to pursue the death penalty.
Here we are 10 days from Christmas, the celebration of Christ's birthday. Christmas was also the day that represents Christ's life, which God gave to us for peace, love & forgiveness. Christmas was also my mother's birthday. My mother was a very forgiving person, and I know this is not what she would have wanted.
When Christ hung on the cross in front of his murderers, he said in Luke 23 verse 24 to forgive them. I believe my mother also offered mercy of forgiveness. When Christ died on The Cross he paid for ALL SIN!!! I have forgiven my mother's murderer!! I do this for my self so I can feel peace. I pray daily for Mr. Contreras-Perez for God to forgive him. If the people take his life through the death penalty, he may lose the opportunity to receive forgiveness for his sins. As Christians we are to be Christlike, and that means offering forgiveness and giving mercy to those who have hurt us. It's been three years with no resolution. It's time to end this and let our family heal.