Among the inmates marking time in a prison yard, it's not hard to pick out the ones who were sent into the adult system when they were still teenagers, before they had a chance to become men. Despite long years of trying to fit in, there's a kind of awkwardness to them, a boyishness that's tough to shake.
The trait seems particularly pronounced in the four dozen or so prisoners in the Colorado Department of Corrections who were sentenced as juveniles to serve life without parole -- prisoners like Dietrick Mitchell.
Mitchell, who turns forty this week, strides into a small visiting room at the Arrowhead Correctional Center with aplomb. The handshake is firm, the gaze unwavering, the voice soft-spoken, the arms festooned with religious tattoos. There is a calm earnestness in his manner, in the way he tells his story. Yet beneath the confident manner is something else -- a nervous laugh, thick glasses, a hint of an almost Urkel-like nerdiness. These are remnants of the skinny sixteen-year-old kid he used to be.
Mitchell believes in knowing his enemy. And his enemy, he explains, is his former self. That kid was foolish and reckless, a dumbass who ruined lives, including his own. It has taken Mitchell a long time to vanquish that kid, and he wants to put him behind him once and for all.
"I can't take back what has happened," he says. "If I could, I would. But I'm not the individual I was -- irresponsible, senseless. Though I've been forgiven by my Creator, it's hard sometimes to forgive yourself. I am no longer that sixteen-year-old kid. I have to forgive that guy. That guy -- for a long time, he was in control while I was incarcerated." When he was sixteen, Mitchell committed a terrible crime. He drank heavily, got behind the wheel of a car and sped down an Aurora street. He struck another sixteen-year-old youth, Danny Goetsch, who was walking in the gutter next to two friends. The impact was so violent that it sent Goetsch flying into the air, onto the windshield, then to the curb, literally knocking him out of his shoes. Mitchell never slowed down. Goetsch died within hours; Mitchell turned himself in two days later.
Mitchell has always insisted that he never saw Goetsch before hitting him and then fled in a panic. His supporters describe the crime as a drunken accident. Prosecutors called it a deliberate execution. They maintained that Mitchell aimed his car at Goetsch, accelerated to a high speed and mowed him down. It was a gang hit, they insisted, a case of an admitted Crip taking out someone he believed to be a rival "slob," a member of the Bloods.
"This was cold-blooded murder, not an accident," special prosecutor (and later Jefferson County District Attorney) Scott Storey wrote in a letter to the Denver Post a few years ago, defending the conviction. "Danny happened to be wearing the wrong color."
There are serious problems with the "gang-related killing" theory, though. Testimony at trial yielded no evidence that any gang rivalry was involved. Nobody was wearing colors that night, and Mitchell and Goetsch, who was white and has been referred to as a Crip wannabe, had never met. But jurors rejected the option of finding Mitchell guilty of vehicular homicide, an offense that usually carries a sentence of four to twelve years. Instead, they returned a verdict of first-degree murder -- making Mitchell the youngest person in Colorado ever sent to prison for life for a hit-and-run case.
At seventeen, Mitchell joined the ranks of the juvie lifers, the boyish men. Like many of them, he had trouble adjusting to prison life and spent years in solitary confinement. "I had a lot of growing up to do," he says now.
In 2011, as one of his last acts in office, Governor Bill Ritter issued a series of pardons and commutations. Mitchell and three other men who'd been juveniles when they committed their crimes were on the list. Ritter commuted Mitchell's sentence to 32 years -- which meant, having already served two decades inside, that he was now eligible for parole.
But Mitchell didn't get parole. Instead, the parole board gave him a five-year setback: He won't be able to reapply for parole until 2016. And despite Ritter's insistence that he intended for Mitchell to be freed "as soon as possible," DOC officials have declined to award him the credits for time served and good behavior that his attorney insists he's entitled to under the commutation order. Based on its own computations, the Colorado Attorney General's Office has declared that his release date is still years away.
The wrangle over Mitchell's freedom has evolved alongside a lawsuit brought by other prisoners, now being considered by the Colorado Supreme Court, that claims the DOC has improperly withheld earned time and good time for thousands of inmates, keeping them past their release dates. Meanwhile, Mitchell is still behind bars; he knows he's in the last lap of his incarceration, but he doesn't know how much longer it will continue. "This doesn't make any sense to me," says Mary Ellen Johnson, director of the Pendulum Foundation, which advocates for juveniles serving time in adult prisons. She points out that the other juvie commutes that Ritter ordered are now on the street, including Sean Taylor, who was sentenced to life for murder two years before Mitchell was. "Sean's been out for years, but they're still arguing about Dietrick. To ignore a governor's clear order is just shocking to me."
"I'm ready to go home," Mitchell insists. "I deserve a chance. I have loving people with me who want to see me succeed."
To try to make sense of Mitchell's dilemma is to try to make sense of the kid he used to be and how far he has come -- and to try to fathom the system that sent him to prison for life, then offered him deliverance, then snatched it away again. As awful as his crime was, it probably would not have resulted in a life sentence if it hadn't occurred at a particular point in Denver's history, when fears of gang violence and "super-predator" youths dominated the news. And if the circumstances surrounding his conviction and punishment hadn't been so exceptional, it's doubtful there would have been an intervention by Ritter -- a former prosecutor himself, not given to handing out passes to stone-cold killers.
The case still haunts former public defender Carrie Thompson, who represented Mitchell before his trial 23 years ago and played a key role in bringing his sentence to Ritter's attention. "The fact that Dietrick has done this amount of time makes me sick to my stomach," she says. "I am embarrassed for the criminal-justice system and how this case was handled."
Born in Shreveport, Louisiana, Mitchell grew up in a big house with his mother, who worked for a bus company, and several of her sisters. "The whole family raised me," he says. "My father was around, but he wasn't involved."
One of his aunts, Linda Mitchell, remembers Dietrick as a gentle, sensitive boy who got into increasing trouble as the situation at home deteriorated. His mother, she says, "used to be a pretty good mother until she got strung out on drugs." Dietrick began hanging out with older cousins and developing his own vices.
He had his first beer, a Miller High Life, when he was eight. He got loopy and liked it. At age eleven he showed up at school loaded; a teacher found him passed out at his desk and reported that he reeked of booze. By the time he was twelve, he'd had his first stint in rehab, going to meetings at a storefront attached to a liquor store. It didn't take. Other kids began calling him Wino.
"After a while, it got out of control," Mitchell says. "From drinking beer to cheap wine -- the Night Train thing, the Thunderbird. All the adults around me were hanging out on street corners. My mom was bad on cocaine. It was a horrible scene."
Linda Mitchell persuaded her sister to move Dietrick to Colorado, with the aim of starting fresh. For several years, Dietrick bounced from one home to another. Sometimes he stayed with Linda -- he calls her "mother" -- and dressed decently and tried to make the grade at school. Sometimes he stayed with his own mom, slipping deeper into addiction and delinquency.
"The mentality we brought from Louisiana, we were still caught up in the life," he says now. "We both had issues, and it was thick."
At fourteen, Mitchell knew exactly who he wanted to be. His one and only role model, the man he wanted to become, was an older cousin back in Louisiana. The man had snakeskin boots, with gold tips and gold spurs. He wore knee-high socks and cutoff slacks and a burgundy-and-white buttondown with gold bling. He kept his curls long and smelled like a cologne factory and drove a Pontiac Grand Am, root-beer brown with gold flakes. Often, there were two or three women in that car when he dropped by.
"He had a nice car, nice clothes, a job, women," Mitchell recalls. "I'd never seen anyone wear cowboy boots with shorts, but it looked cool. He would wreck his car, from being overly intoxicated and whatnot, and next week he'd have another car. I fashioned my life around him. He was a player in the game."
He shakes his head. "I didn't get the cars and girls. I got rehab and kicked out of school." While still in middle school, Mitchell would hang with an older teen by a back door and smoke cigarettes. The other kid turned out to be a member of the Aurora branch of the CC Riders, also known as the Compton Crips. With his cowboy boots and cologne, Mitchell didn't come across as a gangbanger, but he admits he developed "strong ties" with the gang and favored blue clothing. "I was part of the social surroundings with them, drinking and smoking weed," he says.
He also began to attract the attention of the police. Driving around and chatting up the ladies was very much a part of being a player in the game, and Mitchell was stopped more than once for operating a motor vehicle before he was old enough to have a license. In early 1991, eleven days after his sixteenth birthday, he was arrested on suspicion of drunk driving. The Aurora police officer who took him into custody would later testify that Mitchell had flashed what appeared to be gang signs at him and "threatened to have some of his cuzzes or homies come and take care of me after this was over."
The charges in that case were later dropped. But Mitchell was soon arrested again, for motor-vehicle theft. He'd seen a nice set of wheels in a parking lot, decided he didn't really want to take the bus, and hotwired the ride. But instead of going home, he went joyriding, driving recklessly, having fun -- until the cops pulled him over.
He was a disaster waiting to happen. Most of the adults in his life weren't inclined to rein in his desire to drive, despite his lack of a license, insurance, sobriety or common sense. Late that summer, a cousin's boyfriend tossed him the keys to a 1989 Toyota Tercel. The car was of dubious provenance; it had been "rented" for the weekend, off the books, from an employee of a local car dealership, who allegedly arranged such transactions in exchange for drugs. It had also acquired a temporary plate that had been stolen off another car. Mitchell was determined to make it his own set of wheels for as long as the ride would last.
The car was supposed to be returned to the dealership by Sunday night. Instead, Mitchell let a friend borrow it to make a court date Monday morning. After court, the friend picked up Mitchell and told him he had a couple of forty-ounce bottles of malt liquor in the trunk. But the beer was warm, so Mitchell headed to a liquor store for a cold Olde English forty-ounce; once there, he encountered another buddy toting a twelve-pack of Bud.
Over the course of the next few hours, Mitchell made more than a dozen stops, visiting various cousins and aunts and pals and their girlfriends and moms and moms' boyfriends. He cut a wide swath, from east Denver to the Aurora Mall, beaming and showing off his ride. By late in the afternoon, he had made his way through a six-pack of beer and a forty-ounce and arrived at the Park Hill home of his own girlfriend, Shaneen Bryant. The couple made several more stops around "the Holly," a commercial strip north of Martin Luther King Boulevard -- the heart of Bloods territory, a place any hard-core, color-waving Crip would have shunned.
While backing up in a parking lot, Mitchell managed to sideswipe a pole and bust a side mirror. He consoled himself with a second forty-ounce that Bryant bought for him. Before long he spotted another friend, a fourteen-year-old named Ronnie, and invited him to join them. Ronnie put away his bicycle, hopped in the back seat, and helped Mitchell kill the bottle of Olde English.
After a stop to pick up some music, a stop for gas, a visit to someone named T-Bone, then a trip back to the Holly for another forty-ounce, the trio returned to Bryant's house. Bryant's mother could tell that Mitchell had been drinking and told him he was in no shape to drive; she urged him to lie down and sleep it off. But it was getting dark, and Ronnie was demanding to be taken home. Bryant and Mitchell argued over who was going to drive. "I was the only sober one in the car," Bryant explained several months later on the witness stand.
Bryant took the wheel. They had gone scarcely two blocks when Mitchell demanded that she pull over and let him drive. It's a decision he's regretted ever since.
"I beat myself up to this day," he says now. "I knew I was intoxicated when I left Shaneen's house. Dumbass. It was on me."
He headed east on Colfax into Aurora. Spotting a police car in his rearview mirror, he turned right on Peoria. The cop followed. This was not good, he told himself. He figured there was a warrant out for him for failure to appear in court on the auto theft, and catching him in this car in the condition he was in wouldn't help matters. He turned left on 13th Avenue, headed east. The patrol car kept heading south on Peoria.
Safe on 13th, the Toyota started gaining speed, NWA blaring from the tape deck. "I remember I yawned," Mitchell says. "When I got done yawning, my eyes started burning. I rubbed my eyes, and there was a boom. I froze, but I kept going. The music was playing, but I was silent the whole time. Shaneen said something about having glass in her face. "To stop didn't even cross my mind. When I finally stopped and looked at the windshield, it was just...'Oh, shit.'"
He dropped Ronnie in the street, leaving him to walk home. He left Shaneen at his mom's house, just a few blocks from the boom, and went to hide out at a friend's. His aunt Linda remembers being summoned to her sister's house 36 hours later and being told, amid tears and lamentations, "This boy's in so much trouble."
Linda urged her nephew to turn himself in. The accident was his fault, and he had to take responsibility for it. She and a male friend took Mitchell to an Aurora police station to surrender. They did not bring a lawyer, and the police told them they could not stay with Mitchell. He had no adult guardian or advisor present when the police questioned him that night, an interview that was never used in court.
"Next thing I knew, his picture pops up on television," Linda recalls. "They were talking about first-degree murder. I know now that if they show your picture on television and you're a minor, that means you're being charged as an adult."
When he was five years old, Daniel Goetsch wandered away from a less-than-attentive babysitter, fell into a swimming pool and almost drowned. He was Monica Goetsch's only son, and the two were extremely close. They worked together at a Wendy's, and on the last night of his life, his mother cooked dinner for him and two friends.
Danny Goetsch and his friends and his mother played cards and talked. They drank screwdrivers and Olde English malt liquor. Then Danny and his friends walked to a 7-Eleven at Moline and Colfax to use the phone. They were headed to a friend's house when Mitchell's car, which had stopped at the same 7-Eleven a few minutes later, came up behind them.
Because of a conflict within the office of the Arapahoe County district attorney, the Goetsch case was turned over to Scott Storey, then a deputy DA in Jefferson County. The deeper he got into the investigation of this random but lethal encounter, the more convinced Storey became that the case belonged in adult court, with charges much stiffer than vehicular homicide.
"In vehicular-homicide cases, they don't set out to kill somebody," he says now. "This was totally deliberate. If [Mitchell] had pulled a gun and shot him in the back, it would be the same thing. But instead of a gun, it was a car."
The prosecution theory that Goetsch's death was not simply the act of a drunken teen but a gang-motivated killing was based largely on witness testimony and a few puzzling physical details. Several neighbors told police they heard a roar of acceleration for several seconds before the crash; one said it sounded "like a locomotive going in front of my house." One of the two young men walking alongside Goetsch -- both of whom were on the sidewalk rather than in the gutter -- heard a car speeding up behind them and then the impact, "like somebody hit with a baseball bat." The other didn't hear anything unusual before their friend was abruptly knocked into the air. Both eyewitnesses gave false names when they were first interviewed by the police because of fears about outstanding warrants.
There was a surprising lack of any skid marks before or after the point of impact, no sign that the driver had braked at all. And there were claims that a friend of Mitchell's had seen him spinning doughnuts in a parking lot after the crash, bragging that he had run over a "slob" -- a derogatory term for a Blood -- and showing off the "meat" on the windshield where Goetsch had smashed into it.
The key witness for the prosecution was sitting in Mitchell's back seat throughout the incident. According to Ronnie, Mitchell started speeding up when he was a block and a half away from the three youths walking in the street. He stomped on the gas, calmly turned the wheel to the right, and "aimed at the dude that was walking in the gutter." He estimated the speed at impact as around eighty miles an hour. After Mitchell finally slowed and came to a stop, he got out of the car, staggering drunk and grinning, and said, "Three points."
Earlier that afternoon, Ronnie added, Mitchell had seen an older couple on bicycles and muttered something about "three or five points." Now Ronnie knew what he meant. It was a devastating account -- and a much-disputed one. Shaneen Bryant, for example, claimed that Ronnie was the one "being a little lush" in the car and saying how it would be three points to hit the cyclists, and she said it was Ronnie who started "clowning" about three points after the accident. But Bryant's credibility was also suspect. During cross-examination, she admitted that she loved Mitchell and had sent him a letter in jail, intercepted by authorities, urging him to say that she had been driving the car.
As for the assertion that Mitchell was going eighty miles an hour -- a detail Storey has often cited when elaborating on the heinousness of the crime -- that "fact" seems to rest entirely on a guesstimate tossed around by a fourteen-year-old boy. The absence of any skid marks made it impossible to do a complete accident reconstruction; the Aurora Police Department's calculations placed the vehicle's speed at forty miles per hour or more. The medical examiner who conducted the autopsy testified that the victim's injuries were consistent with a scenario in which the vehicle was traveling between thirty and forty miles an hour. And it seems unlikely that a four-cylinder '89 Tercel could accelerate from thirty to eighty in the brief span of time and space that Ronnie described. In his own closing argument, Storey all but conceded the point, telling the jury, "The acceleration is what's critical in this case, not necessarily the speed.... The speed of the bullet doesn't matter."
Did Mitchell use his car like a gun to murder Goetsch? His supposed gangbanger status made that grotesque possibility more plausible, certainly. Storey reminded the jury of that status frequently; he even asked Bryant what kind of music was playing in the car and what "NWA" stood for. ("Black people with an attitude, okay?" she shot back.) But Reverend Leon Kelly, the founder of a program to help extricate youths from gang life, testified that he'd never heard of a gang kid using a car to run down an enemy -- particularly one the kid didn't know and who wasn't wearing rival colors. (There was no testimony at trial that Goetsch was wearing any article of red clothing.) And Carrie Thompson, Mitchell's former attorney, maintains that the gang angle should never have been introduced in the first place. Given the mounting hysteria in Denver in the early 1990s over the influx of California-based street gangs and a surge in drive-by shootings, it was a way of stacking the deck, she suggests.
"Even if Dietrick was a gangbanger, he didn't know this other kid was," she says now. "The fact that Scott Storey made it a gang case when it obviously wasn't was taking advantage of the time. That was the number-one issue with crime in Denver back then."
Storey points out that Thompson tried to head off the prosecution's efforts to tell the jury about Mitchell's gang ties -- and lost the pre-trial motion. "The judge decided it was relevant," he says. "She may think it's inappropriate, but that's why we have judges decide what should be admitted at trial. Trust me, we investigated the heck out of this case. I have no regrets about the way it was prosecuted and the result."
To counter the gang theory, Thompson and co-counsel Carrie Clein retained their own accident-reconstruction expert and made a video reflecting the conditions at night on the block where Goetsch was hit. Although there were streetlights at the end of each block, Thompson contends that the pools of shadow between them were formidable: "There is no way in hell that Dietrich, who was drinking -- and, it turned out later, had eyesight problems -- could have seen those three guys with the lighting conditions we had."
The video was going to be at the centerpiece of Thompson's defense. But shortly before trial, Mitchell's mother fired the public defenders and hired a private attorney, William Jones, to defend her son. Jones elected to pursue a different strategy, one that hinged on shredding the credibility of Ronnie and other prosecution witnesses.
Mitchell says he asked Jones before trial about getting an eye exam and was told that the move could backfire if it turned out his vision was fine. "As soon as I got to DOC, I had my eyes checked, and it shows I can't see far away," he says, fidgeting with his prison-issued glasses. His night vision, he adds, is poor.
Jones put on an impassioned defense, maintaining that the police had jumped to conclusions about the case once they discovered Mitchell's supposed affiliation. (One juror later described the defense effort as "ill-prepared.") But many questions hung in the air. The friend who supposedly told another witness that Mitchell had bragged about running down a "slob" denied that he'd said any such thing, but why would the other person lie? Ronnie's testimony had glaring inconsistencies, but what were his motives for lying? If Mitchell was so impaired, why did his passengers both agree that he was operating the vehicle without any sign of trouble, right up until he hit Goetsch? If he didn't aim his car deliberately at the victim, why he was driving so fast and so close to the curb, rather than in the middle of the street?
And what about the "three points" remark? "I don't talk like that," Mitchell says now, suggesting that Ronnie was trying to "paint me as hard-core to remove himself from the situation."
Mitchell took the stand in his own defense -- an unusual move in a first-degree-murder case, particularly for a defendant so young. He spoke haltingly, tentatively. He didn't remember any conversation about three points. He couldn't explain why the neighbors heard so much acceleration right before the crash. He never saw the guy. He didn't stop because he was scared.
His description of how he felt about what he'd done came across as shockingly casual. "Right after it happened, I didn't really too much feel nothing 'cause I didn't -- I wasn't focused," he told the jury. After he realized what he'd done, he added, "I felt bad, not just for myself being in jail or whatever, feel for the family, what they have to go through with the son dying, whatever. I don't really want nobody to do my son like that."
Mitchell's demeanor at trial seemed puzzling to many observers; one news account described him as displaying "youthful good spirits." Mitchell says now that he was paying little attention to what was going on around him. "I wasn't even there," he says. "I was gone. I had created a fantasy while I was locked up, something completely different from what I was going through. I was back on the streets; it was a happy time."
Storey had given the jury a choice of two conflicting theories of the crime: either a deliberate gang hit, or a murder committed with universal malice and extreme indifference, not caring who died. He argued against a third option, vehicular homicide, saying that, despite all the beers Mitchell had consumed that day, no evidence had shown that his drinking had rendered him incapable of operating a car that night.
The jury was out three hours. They returned a verdict of murder with extreme indifference, a conviction that carried a sentence of life. Mitchell was soon on his way to the most violent prison in the state system, where all his fantasies of being back on the streets quickly withered and died.
As he was being processed into the Colorado Department of Corrections, Mitchell pressed to be assigned to the Limon Correctional Facility, saying he had relatives there and hoped to participate in its substance-abuse programs. He was following the advice of an older con at Limon named Marvin, who used to date his mother and could offer him some degree of protection. State officials don't let inmates pick their own prisons, but they evidently took Mitchell's age into consideration and figured he was better off among friends.
Marvin did what he could for the teen, but Limon -- a warehouse teeming with some of the state's most brutal customers -- was a "culture shock" for Mitchell just the same. "I saw people stabbed," he says. "People getting hit in the head with irons. People thrown off tiers."
His mentor introduced him to a tight circle of old-timers and told him to stick close to that group and stay away from the loudmouths in the yard. It was good advice. "I would try to do my own thing, and it wouldn't work out," Mitchell recalls. "I would get a report -- cussing out the police, stealing, doing something stupid."
Another one of the old-timers took him aside and told him that he had to face the fact that he would be there for the rest of his life. He would have to grow up, be prepared to defend himself, be cautious about trusting anyone, even in the inner circle. Everyone around him was a criminal, and he was bound to be tested. "Sure enough, it happened," Mitchell says. "I got into an incident. It went wrong for the other fellow, and after that, I think I got a taste for it."
More incidents followed. Mitchell had only been inside a few months when he was shipped off to the newly opened supermax, the Colorado State Penitentiary. He spent eighteen months in isolation there. He came out no better. After a stabbing at Centennial that landed him in the hospital, he was sent back to CSP in 1996. He was in solitary confinement for the next four years.
Halfway through his time in the hole, he got a phone call informing him of the murder of a teenage cousin in Louisiana. The man who stood over his cousin, firing multiple bullets into his body, got a sentence of ten years. Ten years for premeditated murder!
"I hung up that phone and went upstairs," Mitchell says. "I was shadowboxing. I was screaming. I cursed God and everybody. I was in this fit of rage. And then I heard this voice: 'Who are you? Why are you still in prison?' I stopped dead in my tracks." Other inmates told him he was hallucinating, but the voice got him thinking. Who was he, really? And what was he doing here, with the life he had left?
It was the start of a long, gradual climb out of the box he had built for himself. Over the next decade, Mitchell's prison record dramatically improved. He stopped getting written up for misconduct, took the limited educational and vocational programs available to lifers, completed his GED and some college classes as well. And he took that reckless, foolish boy out of the driver's seat.
A court decision in an unrelated case changed the way the state was required to calculate sentences like Mitchell's, allowing the possibility of parole after he'd served forty years. In 2009 he was feeling confident enough in his progress to apply for a recommendation of clemency from a board that Governor Ritter had appointed expressly to consider the sentences of juveniles in the adult system. His mother, aunt Linda and a clutch of other supporters wrote letters, noting his accomplishments and years of trouble-free behavior.
Scott Storey wrote a letter, too, objecting to any reduction in his sentence. So did the grieving mother of the boy Mitchell had killed.
"Every day I think of my son," Monica Goetsch wrote. "I have nothing. No peace. I still cry all the time, 17 years later. I still cry and wonder why...I cannot touch Danny or kiss him, I can't tell him see you later, I love you, because you cannot get a response from a grave. Why should Dietrick Mitchell be set free to enjoy what he took away from Danny and me?" His application was denied. But Mitchell didn't give up hope. Carrie Thompson wrote directly to the governor about the case that had most troubled her during her 23 years in the public defender's office. She explained about the investigation she and Clein had conducted into lighting and other conditions that indicated Mitchell hadn't seen the pedestrians. "Because he was drunk and because he was driving recklessly, Dietrick was responsible for the boy's death," she wrote. "However, Dietrick was not guilty of extreme indifference murder.... I have spent many sleepless nights thinking of a way to right what I perceive to be a tragic wrong."
One morning Mitchell began, on impulse, to give things away. Sweatpants. Appliances. Do-rags. He even packed his bags, much to the amusement of other inmates. He ran into Chuck Limbrick, another juvie lifer, who told Mitchell he was giving away stuff, too. Not long after that, Mitchell crossed paths with Sean Taylor; Taylor said he was going through a similar divestment, on a whim and a hope. All of them were expecting something good to happen.
On a Friday night in early 2011, Mitchell caught a report on the television about Limbrick and Taylor getting their sentences commuted. The next morning, his aunt Linda came to visit him.
"Your cousin said you're going to need socks, drawers and T-shirts," she said. Mitchell fell into her arms. His aunt asked him when he found out. "You just told me," he said.
But Ritter's commutation order didn't call for Mitchell's immediate release. It knocked his sentence down to 32 years; having served more than half of that term already, he was overdue for a parole hearing. The hearing took place a few months later, with Mitchell appearing on a video monitor. It lasted only a few minutes, and then Mitchell was told he couldn't reapply for parole for another five years.
"It was a joke," Thompson says of the hearing. "They didn't really talk to him. The denial was just based on the nature of the crime. Nothing else was taken into consideration. My sense was that there was political pressure on the parole board to not even consider releasing him."
Because of his demonstrated good behavior, Mitchell was scheduled to go to a halfway house. That placement was now impossible; under a newly passed law, a violent offender couldn't progress to community corrections unless he was within six months of his next parole hearing.
The parole board's own guidelines require the use of an assessment tool, known as an LSI-R, to evaluate an inmate's fitness for parole. The data in the LSI-R is supposed to be reviewed and updated on a semi-annual basis. But the data used in Mitchell's 2011 parole hearing comes from 1998, when he was still in solitary and not demonstrating much in the way of rehabilitation; his assessment was apparently never updated because nobody expected him to be facing parole. "Evaluate me on my readiness today," he says. "But to hold on to something from that far back, that's not right. I'm not that."
The dispute over the legitimacy of the 2011 hearing is one of several points of contention in the back-and-forth that's gone on between a pro bono attorney representing Mitchell and the state's attorneys over whether Ritter's commutation order has been subverted. The AG's office initially took the position that the governor's order merely moved up his parole-eligibility date. The DOC refused to award any time off for time served or good behavior -- what's known in Colorado as "earned time" and "good time" -- because such credits usually don't apply in first-degree-murder cases. After Mitchell's attorney submitted an affidavit from Ritter, stating that "both earned time and good time should be applied to Mr. Mitchell's sentence pursuant to my executive intent," the department subtracted four years of earned time from the 32-year sentence, setting his mandatory release date in 2018.
Ritter declined to be interviewed for this article, but his affidavit declares, "It was my intention that [Mitchell] be released from jail as soon as possible." Four years later, he's still inside. Mitchell's attorney has argued that if both earned time and good time were properly applied to Mitchell's case, he would have reached his statutory discharge date long ago -- and that his client deserves a new parole hearing, with updated paperwork, earlier than the one now scheduled for 2016. But the state's attorneys haven't budged on either point.
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"He was given a ray of hope, and then it was yanked away from him," Thompson says of Mitchell. "I am incredibly impressed with how he's handled disappointment after disappointment. He still keeps his faith that somehow it will work out."
Linda Mitchell promised her nephew 23 years ago that she would always be there for him, and it's a promise she means to keep on the day he gets out. "He will have difficulties adjusting," she says. "He's never used a computer or a cell phone, not even the kind of car keys we have now. But I tell him, 'Don't let your fear keep you inside.'"
For years, Mitchell toiled over a letter of apology he wrote to Goesch's mother. He still struggles over what he can say or do to ever earn forgiveness for "creating such misery and hate." He figures he can't give back without going forward, and he talks about wanting to go to school and study horticulture, maybe learn how to raise vegetables.
"I truly believe there will come a time when we have to fend for ourselves, provide for ourselves," he says. "I want to learn that."