The Colorado Supreme Court has upheld a lower court's decision to reverse David Bueno's first-degree-murder conviction because evidence that might have helped him was withheld in his death-penalty case. To attorney David Lane, who represents Bueno, the ruling casts shame on prosecutors with the 18th Judicial District DA's office currently occupied by Colorado Attorney General candidate George Brauchler even as it and other controversial cases, including those pertaining to death-row residents Sir Mario Owens and Robert Ray, undermine the argument for capital punishment in general.
"If Colorado is to maintain the integrity of its judicial system," Lane says, "it's absolutely essential that these matters be addressed by the Colorado Supreme Court disciplinary council — and the death penalty should be abolished."
"Arapahoe County DA Charges Death-Penalty Fees to State," a February 2008 feature by Westword's Alan Prendergast, pivoted on the efforts of District Attorney Carol Chambers, Brauchler's predecessor, to give the ultimate punishment to Bueno and fellow inmate Alejandro Perez for a killing committed in prison. This effort "has been a head-scratcher from day one," Prendergast wrote, since "in the history of the state, Colorado has never sought the death penalty for a prisoner killing another prisoner."
As pointed out in the Colorado Supreme Court opinion, accessible below, a jury ultimately found Bueno guilty of slaying inmate Jeffrey Heird. However, fifteen months after Bueno's conviction, but before he was sentenced (jurors had already rejected the death penalty for him), Chambers's office revealed that it hadn't shared two reports in its possession since the earliest days of the investigation.
"One report documented the discovery of a note found on the day of the murder indicating that white supremacists were planning to murder white inmates in the prison," states the court, which notes that Heird was Caucasian. "The other evinced a detective's suspicion that the murder was linked to another homicide that had been committed in prison a few days earlier."
Bueno's legal team responded by asking for a new trial, and this request was granted. Then, in October 2010, the conviction was vacated, with one passage from the order by District Judge Douglas Tallman suggesting that the actions by Chambers and company may have been purposeful.
"Apparently, someone from the District Attorney's office made the conscious decision this information was not to be included in discovery because it was not relevant," Tallman wrote. "The Trial Court cannot say with certainty the District Attorney acted in bad faith by withholding relevant and possibly exculpatory evidence.... [But] it is apparent to the Trial Court that a conscious decision was made at some point early in this case to keep the information from the Defendant by separating these documents from the balance of [the] working file."
This was hardly the final word on the matter. Although Perez was acquitted circa 2011 in a development Lane characterized at the time as "virtually unheard of" for a high-profile death-penalty case, the 18th Judicial District DA's office under Chambers and, later, Brauchler, continued to maintain that Bueno's conviction should stand. But this week, the Colorado Supreme Court closed that door, standing behind the lower court's determination that "the prosecution...suppressed exculpatory and material evidence."
Lane calls the prosecutors' approach to Bueno "Mississippi in the mountains. And this is how the 18th Judicial District rolls. Look at the hearing for Sir Mario Owens," who was convicted, along with Ray, of killing Javad Marshall-Fields (son of state representative Rhonda Fields) and his fiancée, Vivian Wolfe, in 2005. "A judge found 22 instances of them hiding documents that should have been turned over to the defense."
These problems also happened on Chambers's watch, but Lane doesn't give her successor a pass. "Brauchler has vigorously defended the actions of Chambers's henchmen," he maintains. "And defending the indefensible and not seeking justice but seeking convictions and death sentences is not what his job is about."
He acknowledges that "I'm not accusing George Brauchler of hiding evidence. It's his deputies who are hiding the evidence. They have a pattern of hiding evidence in death-penalty cases, and for that, they should be disbarred and jailed."
Colorado's capital-punishment statute should be sent away, too, Lane believes. "Colorado has only had one execution in fifty years," he stresses. "Right now, we only have three people on death row: Nathan Dunlap (who got a reprieve but not clemency from Governor John Hickenlooper in 2013), Sir Mario Owens and Robert Ray — and the death penalties of Ray and Owens are tainted by prosecutorial misconduct and the hiding of evidence that should have been turned over."
As for Bueno, "he escaped a death sentence," Lane continues, "but otherwise, it's exactly the same game plan: Hide evidence that might help David Bueno. And it's the very same DA's office doing it, because they want to win at any cost. Ethically, prosecutors are required to seek justice, not convictions. But they apparently lose sight of that on a regular basis, especially on death-penalty cases in the 18th Judicial District."
Click to read the Colorado Supreme Court's opinion in People v. Bueno.