Two days a week, Bob Autobee has been outside the Douglas County courthouse with his signs, protesting the lack of justice in the criminal justice system. Yesterday, he was invited inside, to explain to Judge Richard Caschette why he should be allowed to tell the jury in the long-delayed trial of Edward Montour Jr. that Montour shouldn't be executed for murdering Autobee's son, Eric, in the Limon Correctional Facility in 2002. "Using my son's [death] to promote the death penalty not only saddens me, it angers me," Autobee said, during twenty minutes of emotional testimony.
Bob Autobee is the death-penalty abolition movement's fever dream: a former corrections officer and vengeful father who has become not only disillusioned but disgusted with the machinations and politics of state executions and outspoken in his efforts to spare the life of his son's killer. That also makes him the last person Eighteenth Judicial District Attorney George Brauchler wants to see addressing the jury in Montour's capital case, prompting a prosecution motion to prevent him from doing so -- and leading to yesterday's unusual hearing, in which Autobee and his attorney argued that the state was violating Colorado's Victim Rights Act in its efforts to muzzle him.
"I'm feeling a lot better now than I have in the last eleven and a half years," Autobee told Judge Caschette. "This may be the best I've felt in my entire life. I'm at peace with myself and my family and my God."
Montour was already serving a life sentence for the murder of his infant daughter when he attacked Eric Autobee, a 23-year-old corrections officer, with a heavy soup ladle in the Limon kitchen. It was the first inmate killing of an officer in the Colorado Department of Corrections in 73 years. For years afterward, the elder Autobee testified, he was an emotional wreck, consumed with grief and anger.
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 the current retrial.
The Autobee family began to pull out of the effort to execute Montour years ago. Bob went through substance abuse counseling and anger management classes; he also began to raise uncomfortable questions about short staffing and previous assaults at Limon and why Montour, who'd been diagnosed as bipolar, with psychotic features, was in general population. He urged Brauchler to accept a deal by which Montour would plead guilty and spend his life in solitary confinement at the state supermax, a fate Autobee regarded as more just and "accountable" than a costly, protracted death-penatly chase. (Brauchler rejected the deal.)
A few weeks ago, Autobee met with Montour for a restorative justice session, during which he formally forgave him for killing Eric. Then he began protesting outside the courthouse during jury selection, insisting on his right to address the jury at sentencing.
Meanwhile, the death penalty case on Montour has been imploding on other fronts, too. New expert testimony obtained by his defense team indicates he may have been wrongfully convicted in his daughter's death, which could have been accidental. It was the strain and rough treatment he'd received as a supposed baby killer and a snitch, the defense has argued, that led him to attack Eric Autobee in hopes of being taken out of general population.
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"I'm angry with the courts for putting him in prison, where he could hurt my son," Bob Autobee told the packed courtroom yesterday. "I want him to be held accountable. But there are other ways to punish people without killing them. I don't want to see anyone die."
Prosecutor John Topolnicki spent only a few moments on a gentle cross-examination of Autobee. The DA's position is that the U.S. Supreme Court has frowned on the idea of victim families telling juries who does or doesn't deserve the death penalty. But Montour's team says Colorado law is clear on a victim's right to comment on the appropriate sentence.
"Mr. Autobee doesn't have a side," insisted his attorney, Iris Eytan. "He just wants his rights.... He's already lost his son. Why does have to lose his voice and his conscience?"
More from our Colorado Crimes archive circa January 6: "Video: Bob Autobee forgives Edward Montour for son's murder as death-penalty trial begins."