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David Isberg: Inmate seeks reprieve from his "death sentence," too

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Governor John Hickenlooper confounded death-penalty advocates and opponents alike last month when he granted a reprieve but not clemency to Nathan Dunlap, who'd been scheduled for execution in August for the 1993 murders of four people. Now David Isberg is hoping the governor will intervene to prevent another "death sentence" -- the one he's facing in six months or less after being denied critical medical treatment because of his status as an inmate in Colorado's prison system.

Like Dunlap, Isberg has a bipolar condition and a history of erratic behavior. Unlike Dunlap, Isberg has never killed anyone. Yet his family and supporters say he's battling a life-or-death situation that gets more urgent with every passing day -- and can only be addressed by either a reduction in sentence or executive clemency from Hickenlooper.

But can Hick muster as much interest in Isberg's strange case as he did in the legal and moral quandaries involved in the execution of the Chuck E. Cheese killer?

Back in 2007 former Westword writer Naomi Zeveloff reported on Isberg, who'd been convicted of marijuana possession and then diagnosed with bladder cancer, in a story on the lack of health care for prisoners once they move to halfway houses. Since that time, Isberg has beaten the cancer into remission -- only to pick up more health problems and more serious charges.

Last year, Isberg learned that he has T-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia. He received chemotherapy, achieved remission, then relapsed -- and now is receiving chemo treatment again. His chief hope for survival beyond the six-month window doctors have now given him is a bone marrow transplant. That treatment is by no means a sure thing; however, Isberg has four siblings, each of whom has a 30 percent chance of being a potential donor.

But a letter from one of his physicians at the Rocky Mountain Cancer Centers explains that the doctor in charge of his case "feels that Mr. Isberg is not and will never be a candidate for transplantation, even if he does achieve a second remission, because his position as a prisoner in jail makes it unsafe for him to go through the procedure."

By unsafe, the doctor adds, he means that an inmate lacks the "adequate social support" a transplant patient needs. That social support is unlikely to materialize any time soon -- not as long as Isberg, currently confined to a prison infirmary, is serving 32 years for robbery.

Continue for more about the David Isberg case. That conviction stems from a 2008 arrest, after Isberg walked into a Starbucks and a King Soopers in Boulder and demanded money. Although a jury found him guilty of aggravated robbery while in possession of a real or simulated weapon, Isberg attorney Danyel Joffe says the crimes weren't as violent as they sound.

"While robbery is a serious charge, David did not actually have a gun," Joffe says. "Nobody was in actual danger."

"He was off his meds," says Isberg's sister, Tanya Isberg-Thompson. "He had a thousand dollars in the bank at the time."

Facing possible habitual criminal charges because of his prior felonies, Isberg agreed to take a 32-year jolt rather than getting "bitched" for 64 years. But right now, he's just trying to get through the next six months.

Joffe has filed three motions with the court seeking a reduction in the sentence. The Boulder District Attorney's Office has opposed the move. DA Stan Garnett says his team has yet to be provided with medical records documenting Isberg's condition, and the documents they do have pertaining to his six prior felonies -- including not only the weed charge, but absconding from a halfway house and another robbery conviction in Alaska, as well as a pending case involving an alleged assault on a corrections officer -- don't exactly help his cause.

"He's certainly got a record," Garnett says, "and we have concerns as to whether he poses a public safety risk."

No hearing has been set on the sentence reduction request, but Tanya Isberg-Thompson says time is critical.

"The transplant has to happen soon," she says. "The body can only handle so much. My brother is a fighter, but he's on morphine right now."

In a recent letter to Westword, Isberg expressed his hope that either the Parole Board or Hickenlooper might consider his pleas for a compassionate early release. He acknowledges that many people might well agree with the idea that prisoners should be denied life-saving treatment "because of the fact that they are prisoners," he wrote. "In medical triage, that statement may seem to make sense. In humane terms, it's an outrage."

Here's a look at a larger version of an Isberg mug shot.

More from our Follow That Story archive circa 2008: "If David Isberg can beat cancer, why not the prison bureaucracy?"

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