Defense: Edward Montour wrongly convicted of killing baby before prison murder, execution bid

The long, troubled effort to execute Edward Montour Jr. for the 2002 murder of Limon prison guard Eric Autobee, a prosecution already under fire from Autobee's parents, who oppose the death penalty for their son's killer, just got more complicated. A defense motion filed Monday morning contends that Montour was wrongly convicted of beating his infant daughter to death, the crime that put him in prison in the first place and got him labeled as a "baby killer" among other inmates before his fatal attack on Autobee.

Montour received a sentence of life in prison in the 1997 death of eleven-week-old Taylor Montour. Prosecutors had planned to use the fact that he was already behind bars for such a heinous crime as an aggravating factor in the capital case against him, for which jury selection is now underway.

But his attorneys now maintain that Taylor's death was accidental, and they have assembled a battery of forensic pathologists and other expert witnesses prepared to testify that Montour's child-abuse conviction resulted from a combination of bad science and bad lawyering. The motion also refers to a statement from the man who sent Montour to prison, former El Paso County prosecutor John Newsome, that had he known of the expert opinions at the time, "not only would he not have tried and convicted Edward Montour of first-degree murder, he never would have filed charges against him."

At the time of his daughter's fatal injuries, Montour insisted that he'd accidentally dropped Taylor when he stood up from a rocking chair, and that her head had struck the chair and then the floor. The El Paso County Coroner's Office took the position that the injuries were far too severe to have occurred in a short fall and were consistent with "having been thrown off a ten-story building." Among other injuries, the infant appeared to have suffered broken ribs, a broken femur, and five separate points of impact on her head.

But research on infant deaths from short falls has advanced significantly since 1997. After obtaining access to medical records and a review of X-rays by leading pediatric radiologists, the experts consulted by the defense -- including former Denver medical examiner Amy Martin, Adams County pathologist Mike Arnall, and others -- all agree that Taylor's injuries were consistent with an accidental death. The baby had rickets, which made her bones extremely brittle; the multiple cranial impact sites are actually the result of an internal bleed and swelling from one impact where she hit her head; the broken ribs and femur could well have come from CPR efforts and an attempt to insert an IV by medical personnel. While the opinions fall short of absolutely exonerating Montour, they do agree that there wasn't sufficient evidence to call Taylor's death a homicide.

There's no real doubt that Montour killed Autobee in the Limon kitchen five years later, bludgeoning the 23-year-old correctional officer with a heavy soup ladle. (He 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.) By the time of the attack, Montour had been diagnosed by prison doctors as having a bipolar condition with psychotic features, had been taunted by staff and beaten by other inmates for being a baby killer and a reputed snitch, and was seeking a way to get removed from general population.

"The fact that Edward Montour was in prison for the murder of his beloved daughter is nothing short of the ultimate miscarriage of justice," Montour attorney David Lane files in the new motion, which seeks to keep the jury from hearing about his prior conviction. "The tragedy that Edward Montour was convicted of the monstrous crime of brutally beating his baby to death has cost him a price beyond description. He lost his beloved daughter and instead of being comforted in the normal grieving process, he was prosecuted. After receiving remarkably horrible representation at trial, he was convicted and publicly labeled a monster.... Edward Montour entered one of the most violent and dangerous prisons in the United States labeled as a baby killer. The other inmates shunned him at best and attacked and victimized him at worst. His mental illness began to flourish as every nightmare scenario imaginable was cascading down upon him."

At a hearing in Douglas County last week, prosecutor John Topolnicki indicated that his office was still reviewing the new evidence Lane's team had assembled. "Even today if we knew absolutely for sure that he was innocent, he was constitutionally convicted," Topolnicki told Judge Richard Caschette. "Now, it may be just that Mr. Montour receives the death penalty for killing Eric Autobee, regardless of whether or not he should have been convicted of that other one, and that is a decision our office will have to make."

Topolnicki also complained of "a continuing attempt during the course of this case to try to involve the press and to put pressure on our office," including a recent Atlantic online article about the prosecution's effort to keep the Autobees from addressing the jury about the death penalty.

More from our Colorado Crimes archive circa January 28: "Edward Montour trial: DA seeks to muzzle father's plea of mercy for son's killer."

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast