Edward Montour gets life, death-penalty foes get a win

After twelve years of trying to put Edward Montour Jr. to death for the murder of a Limon prison guard, it took only a few minutes late yesterday afternoon to sentence him to life without parole, after prosecutors grumblingly agreed to a plea deal that they said would provide only "partial justice" in the convoluted case.

As Michael Roberts reported yesterday, Eighteenth Judicial District Attorney George Brauchler made the offer of life in exchange for a guilty plea hours after opening statements in Montour's long-awaited retrial.

And only days had passed since Brauchler's bid to postpone the trial was denied.

The resolution was a relief to the parents of Eric Autobee, the 23-year-old corrections officer that Montour bludgeoned to death with a heavy ladle in the Limon Correctional Facility kitchen in 2002. Eric's father, Bob, had initially sought execution for Montour but gradually became disillusioned with the many delays and missteps in the process. He has since met with Montour, forgiven him for taking his son's life, and opposed Brauchler's efforts to pursue the death penalty.

At yesterday's hearing, Bob Autobee actually cracked a smile and called the occasion "a happy day."

"I spent ten years of my life crying over the loss of my son and some of the things that were happening in court," he told Judge Richard Caschette shortly before the sentence was imposed. "I feel pretty strong right now.... Restorative justice is a good thing. The fight I put up was to honor my son. I think he would want to be remembered as someone who saved a life, not took a life."

Montour was already serving a life sentence for the murder of his eleven-week-old daughter, Taylor, when he launched the fatal attack on Autobee. 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. The prosecution has since been mired in procedural delays, claims of mental illness by Montour, and a formidable challenge to the circumstances surrounding his underlying conviction.

Prosecutors hoped to use the fact that Montour was already serving life for a prior homicide as an aggravating factor in his current trial. But last month Montour's defense team filed a motion, based on an impressive array of opinions by forensic pathologists, that he was wrongfully convicted of beating his daughter Taylor to death and shouldn't have been in prison in the first place. The El Paso County Coroner's Office found the new evidence -- which suggested that Taylor had died from a short fall, as Montour always claimed -- so persuasive that it amended the death certificate in the case, changing the cause of death from "homicide" to "undetermined."

According to Brauchler, the prosecution had scrambled to find experts to rebut the new claims but couldn't complete the task in the time Judge Caschette allotted; the DA was still talking to Kempe Center child-abuse experts on Wednesday as opening statements began, even though it was past the deadline the judge had imposed. Fearing that the jury would be swayed by the defense's claims that Montour, branded a snitch and a baby killer at Limon, had been mentally ill and acting on impulse when he attacked Autobee, Brauchler felt he had to take the death penalty off the table and pre-empt the trial.

"I take the death penalty seriously," Brauchler told reporters in a post-sentencing press conference. "I'm also a pragmatist. We were so hamstrung by the situation that I needed to get as much justice as I could."

Montour attorney David Lane points out that his client offered to plead guilty and spend his life in prison more than a year ago, but Brauchler rejected that offer. Montour was then allowed to withdraw his previous guilty plea, necessitating a new trial. The prosecution's idea of justice, Lane said, is "purely vengeance," adding, "The reason this has dragged on for years is that they wanted to kill him. The whole process has cost taxpayers millions of dollars."

Brauchler shot back that the tremendous costs of the marathon case -- he had no precise accounting to offer, but suggested "it rhymes with jillions" -- are due primarily to "the legal maneuvers and manipulations" of Montour's defense team, also funded by taxpayers. He lamented that the life sentence might send the wrong message to other inmates who figure they have little to lose by attacking a guard. While Montour has spent most of the last decade in solitary confinement, there's no guarantee he will live out his life in those conditions.

"I wanted to make sure Edward Montour never harms another person," Brauchler said. "I was only able to protect the entire non-penal population."

Lane vowed that his team would be filing additional court documents in an effort to get Montour's previous conviction for his daughter's death thrown out.

More from our Colorado Crimes archive circa March 6: "Edward Montour death-penalty bid dropped in favor of life without possibility of parole."

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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