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These Loved Ones of Murder Victims Oppose Colorado's Death Penalty

Bob Autobee speaks at a rally opposing the death penalty.
Bob Autobee speaks at a rally opposing the death penalty.
Photo by Conor McCormick-Cavanagh

In conjunction with yesterday's introduction of the latest bill to end Colorado's death penalty, the ACLU of Colorado released a massive white paper outlining the rationale for why capital punishment in the state should finally be snuffed out. And those delivering the message should be very familiar to Westword readers.

"Ending a Broken System: Colorado's Expensive, Ineffective and Unjust Death Penalty" begins with the image above, taken by Westword reporter Conor McCormick-Cavanagh to illustrate his coverage of a July 2019 rally by execution opponents. The document's authors attempt to bolster their arguments by referencing a slew of stories shared in this space and calling upon advocates who oppose what's known as the ultimate punishment despite having suffered tremendous personal tragedies.

Included among them is Bob Autobee, the man at the podium in the aforementioned photo. His son, Eric Autobee, was working at the Limon Correctional Facility when an inmate, Edward Montour Jr., took his life in 2002. Yet Autobee spent years afterward calling for Montour to be spared.

Continue for excerpts from the report in which Autobee and others talk about why they oppose the death penalty, as well as information about four men wrongfully convicted of crimes. Each item is accompanied by links to past Westword coverage.

"The exorbitant cost of the death penalty means that millions of dollars used for the death penalty cannot be used for crime prevention, increased law enforcement, or services for crime victims. Every death penalty case is bifurcated so it’s not one case, it’s really two. The first case to determine if the person committed the murder, the second case to decide whether or not the death penalty is an appropriate sentence. That’s why death penalty cases are so much longer and more expensive. Every capital case is a sentence to poor murder victims’ family members that they have to relive the murder and the trauma of that experience for many years while they await legal cases and appeals.

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"There was a trial for the killer’s accomplice that dragged on for eight years because of appeals. It was enormously stressful. As long as the trial was still going on and the case wasn’t settled, it was awful carrying that burden. The death penalty means victims’ families are putting their lives on hold for years as they attend new hearings and appeals and relive the murder." — Gail Rice, whose brother, Denver Police Officer Bruce VanderJagt, was murdered while on duty

Further reading: "Zero to Life" and "From Kid to Killer," April 15, 1999.

"We’ve only had one execution in the last 40 years. And in that set time period we’ve had over 4,000 homicides in Colorado. I find it insulting when people suggest we need the death penalty as justice for victims. Are you suggesting the vast majority of us don’t deserve justice because we were never offered the death penalty? Don’t add insult to our tremendous injury by telling us our loss wasn’t the worst of the worst. Such a message is very insulting because it says to the rest of us, the murder of our loved one is ordinary or not that bad." — Lieutenant L. Hollis, whose niece, Faye Johnson, was murdered in Aurora.

Further reading: "Vincent Groves May Have Slain 24 Women: Colorado's Most Prolific Serial Killer?," a March 7, 2012, item about the man suspected of killing Faye Johnson.

"I’m a veteran corrections officer. No one would ever call me soft on crime. The threat of the death penalty isn’t nearly as important to keeping our prisons safe as well-trained staff that have the tools they need to succeed. I wish more than anything that the millions of dollars the state used to prosecute and defend our offender’s capital case had instead been invested in making our prisons safer. As a victim’s father who has been trapped in the labyrinth of the death penalty, and after seeing the real misuse of resources, I am begging our elected officials to do away with our broken death penalty system.

"When my son was murdered, I supported the death penalty. That was before I experienced how the system really doesn’t work. Justice should be swift. This just isn’t possible with the death penalty. Dr. Martin Luther King stated, 'Justice delayed is not justice.' It has been more than ten years since Eric was murdered, and the case is still being fought. Thousands of hours, millions of dollars and an unspeakable emotional toll on my family has been poured into the fight for a death penalty. The death penalty means agony for families like mine that can’t move forward because we have to stay vigilant to the process. Everyone has to pick a side, and the death penalty drives families apart. If the ultimate punishment in our case had been life without parole, my wife and I could be focusing on our healing. The fact that they want to kill somebody is a dishonor to my son because he was not about death. Don’t saddle my son’s name with the death penalty." — Bob Autobee of Denver, whose son, Sgt. Eric Autobee, was murdered in the Limon Correctional Facility

Further reading: "Bob Autobee Drops Out of Death Penalty Battle for Son's Killer, Edward Montour," December 4, 2012; "Bob Autobee on Son's Killer: 'I Don't Want to See Anyone Die,'" February 14, 2014; "James Holmes Case: Death Penalty Foe Bob Autobee's Letter to Victims Stirs Controversy," July 14, 2014.

"I have peace knowing that my mother’s murderer is being held accountable for his actions. He will serve life in prison without parole. To make that decision to take his life would be no different than him taking my mom’s life. And two wrongs never make a right. I want to teach my children the importance of human life. I would never have wanted my mother’s murderer to be killed — knowing that his children would feel the grief and the pain that I feel." — Katherine Smith, whose mother, Sgt. Mary Katherine Ricard, was murdered at the Arkansas
Valley Correctional Facility in Crowley, Colorado

"Six weeks after her murder, we met at the District Attorney’s Office. We were explaining that we did not want them to seek the death penalty — it fell on deaf ears. We were discouraged realizing that they were going to have their own agenda and pursue the death penalty even though we asked them not to. My family believes in forgiveness. Our belief is that nobody has the right to take another human being’s life under any circumstance. God tells us ‘thou shalt not kill,’ and I know my wife wouldn’t want somebody killed." — Tim Ricard, husband of Sgt. Mary Katherine Ricard

Further reading: "DA Pursues Death Penalty in Mary Ricard Murder Over Daughter's Objections," December 16, 2015.

"The Wrong Person: Stories of Colorado's Broken System"

LORENZO MONTOYA

The fourteen-year-old was one of the youngest Coloradans sentenced to life without parole in an adult prison. He spent the next thirteen years of his life behind bars — four of those in solitary confinement — before his
conviction was overturned by DNA evidence in 2014. A disturbing video was released showing detectives pushing Montoya to confess to a murder he did not commit.

Further reading: "How to Convict a Fourteen-Year-Old of a Murder He Didn't Commit," July 26, 2016.

ROBERT DEWEY

"If the criminal legal system cannot be trusted to put the right man behind bars, how can it be trusted to put the right man to death?" — Robert Dewey

Dewey was imprisoned for seventeen years on a wrongful murder charge. DNA testing of blood found at the scene matched the victim, the suspect, and at least 45 percent of the U.S. population — yet it led to his conviction. After the DNA evidence was retested years later, the person who actually committed the crime was identified, and Dewey was released from prison.

Further reading: "Robert Dewey Reportedly Cleared of Rape, Murder After Sixteen Years in Jail," April 27, 2012; "Robert Dewey, Wrongly Convicted of Murder, to Receive $1.2 Million Compensation," August 5, 2013.

TIM MASTERS

No physical evidence linked him to the murder, but one psychologist testified that his artwork implicated him. When prosecutors admitted evidence had been withheld and DNA tests pointed to a different suspect, Masters was found innocent after ten years in prison. Colorado taxpayers paid $10 million in two separate lawsuits over the wrongful conviction.

Further reading: "Timothy Masters Wins $4.1 million Payment From Larimer County Judicial District, and There's Probably More Where That Came From," February 16, 2010; "Tim Masters's Settlement From Fort Collins Over Improper Murder Conviction: $5.9 Million," June 8, 2010; "Timothy Masters Exonerated by Colorado AG John Suthers in Peggy Hettrick Murder," June 29, 2011.

JOE ARRIDY

He had the mental capacity of a six-year-old and spent the last seven years of his life in an institution. In 2011, the Colorado governor pardoned him, stating, "[A]n overwhelming body of evidence indicates the 23-year-old Arridy was innocent, including false and coerced confessions, the likelihood that Arriday was not in Pueblo at the time of the killing, and an admission of guilt by someone else."

Further reading: "Joe Arridy Was the Happiest Man on Death Row," September 20, 2012.

Click to read "Ending a Broken System: Colorado's Expensive, Ineffective and Unjust Death Penalty."

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