Inmates Waitin' Around to Die

Technically speaking, Colorado hasn't had a death row for several years — not since officials at the Colorado State Penitentiary stopped housing the prisoners awaiting execution all in one place and reassigned them to different tiers. The notion became even more elusive after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that juries, not judges, must decide whether a convicted murderer lives or dies, thereby invalidating the death sentences of three CSP residents that had been imposed by judicial tribunals, under a system Colorado started using in 1996.

These days the only supermax inmate awaiting execution is Nathan Dunlap, who killed four people at an Aurora Chuck E. Cheese in 1993. That makes Colorado's death house just about the loneliest in the nation — tied with New Mexico, and with one more occupant than New Hampshire, which in theory has a death penalty but no one sentenced to death.

But Dunlap may soon get some company, at least in spirit. In the past two years prosecutors have announced plans to seek the death penalty in seven pending homicide cases. In addition to David Bueno and Alejandro Perez, the candidates include:

Edward Montour Jr.: Pleaded guilty to killing a Limon Correctional Facility kitchen supervisor by bludgeoning him with a soup ladle. In a taped confession, Montour claimed he killed Eric Autobee in 2002 to improve his bottom-feeder status in the prison; he was already serving a life sentence for killing his infant daughter. Last April the Colorado Supreme Court threw out his death sentence because it hadn't been imposed by a jury. Prosecutors are now seeking to resentence him to death.

Jose Luis Rubi-Nava: Accused of kidnapping and murdering his girlfriend Luz Maria Franco Fierros, who was dragged by the neck for miles behind a car in Douglas County in 2006. The trial has been delayed while experts debate his mental competency. The defense claims Rubi-Nava is mentally retarded; prosecutors say he plays chess, and a doctor for the state mental hospital recently declared him to be of "average" intelligence.

Sir Mario Owens and Robert Keith Ray: Already serving long prison sentences for the 2004 murder of Gregory Vann at an Aurora park, Owens and Ray are also accused of the 2005 killing of the chief witness who was supposed to testify against them in the Vann case, Javad Marshall-Fields, and his fiancé, Vivian Wolfe. The case has sparked scrutiny of the limited resources available for protecting witnesses even in major homicide cases.

Marco Lee: The only defendant facing a death-penalty prosecution by a district attorney other than Carol Chambers, Lee is slated for trial in the execution-style shooting of Colorado Springs police officer Kenneth Jordan during a 2006 drunk-driving stop. Fourth Judicial District Attorney John Newsome listed half a dozen "aggravators" in the case to justify the death-penalty filing, including the claim that the murder was committed "in an especially heinous, cruel, or depraved manner" — and that the victim happened to be a peace officer doing his job.

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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