Since she took over as district attorney five years ago, Carol Chambers has let wrongdoers in the Eighteenth Judicial District know that she's going to hold them accountable. She's pursued lengthy habitual-criminal sentences for low-level offenders, gone after opposing attorneys and truth-fudging cops, and even criticized judges for taking (and giving) too many breaks. She's been an absolute scourge of the errant and the inept, as detailed in my 2007 feature "The Punisher."
But when it comes to making sure that her own prosecution team colors within the lines, Chambers seems to have a different set of rules. The prevailing ethos in the Eighteenth, which includes Arapahoe, Douglas, Elbert and Lincoln counties, seems to be conviction at any cost -- even when a defendant's life is at stake.
The latest ethical lapse to emerge from her office concerns the capital case against state inmate David Bueno for the murder of another prisoner in the Limon Correctional Facility in 2004. Last year, a Hugo jury convicted Bueno but declined to impose the death penalty Chambers was seeing. Good thing, apparently -- as Susan Greene reports in this Denver Post story, the Bueno defense has since learned that prosecutors failed to disclose thousand of pages of discovery in the case, including key evidence that supports the defense theory that the victim was a renegade white supremacist killed by other white gang members.
Taken by itself, the prosecution's negligence is disturbing enough. But this is hardly the first time Chambers' office has crossed the line in a death-penalty case.
Chambers has pursued more capital cases than any other DA in recent memory. That she chose to seek the ultimate penalty for two inmates in the Limon killing baffled defense attorneys; after all, the suspects are already serving long sentences, and the costly appeals in death cases can string things out for a decade or more. Then the attorneys discovered that Chambers was actually billing the state prison system for the cost of the cases, using an obscure 130-year-old statute (see "Death Benefits" to learn more).
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That dubious practice came under fire as Chambers' office sought to kill Bueno's co-defedant, Alejandro Perez. In 2008, a Lincoln County judge disqualified her office and the Colorado Attorney General from pursuing the Perez case, citing numerous ethical violations, from prosecutors who'd failed to disclose conflicts of interest to misleading court filings ("Bad Execution").
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Yet another disclosure issue has clouded the case against inmate Edward Montour Jr., who pleaded guilty to killing Eric Autobee, a Limon kitchen supervisor, by bludgeoning him to death with a soup ladle in 2002. Montour's original death sentence was thrown out by the Colorado Supreme Court because it hadn't been imposed by a jury. Efforts to resentence him have been bogged down in procedural issues. One issue raised by the defense involves a letter sent anonymously by other Limon inmates to Westword after the murder, alleging various motives and mitigating factors in the crime. The letter was copied by Department of Corrections monitors before it ever left the facility, and that information was turned over to the DA's office. However, the defense didn't learn about it until years later.
Oops. Oops. And oops again.
In Chambers' world, criminals with three strikes end up being branded habitual offenders and sent away for a loooong time for crimes as heinous as walking away from a halfway house or shoplifting a few compact discs. But who holds the scourges of righteousness accountable when, in matters of life and death, they screw up over and over?