Justices' Photo Prompts Request for Removal in Death-Penalty Case

The decade-long legal battle over one of Colorado's most infamous death-penalty cases keeps getting stranger. First came the abrupt removal of Arapahoe County District Judge Gerald Rafferty, who presided over the trials of defendants Robert Ray and Sir Mario Owens — a move contested by Owens's attorneys, who believed Rafferty was within days of ruling on claims of prosecution misconduct in the case. 

Now comes an equally striking blast from Ray's attorneys, asking Colorado Supreme Court justices Nancy Rice and Nathan Coats to abstain from ruling on a pending appeal of Ray's conviction because of their appearance in a photo with State Representative Rhonda Fields — who happens to be the mother of Javad Marshall-Fields, the man Ray and Owens have been convicted of killing, along with his fiancee, Vivian Wolfe, in 2005. Marshall-Fields had been expected to testify against the two men in another homicide. 

The photo appears in an e-mail newsletter sent out in May by Fields, seeking donations for her campaign for state senate. It was apparently taken last January during Governor Hickenlooper's State of the State address — "at a time when Mr. Ray's Petition was pending before the Court," the attorneys observe in their motion for recusal. The motion also notes that Fields was a witness in the prosecutions of Owens and Ray and has been a prominent advocate of the death penalty. 

Coats and Rice need to remove themselves from ruling on the case, the motion contends, "because a reasonable observer of this photograph might have doubts about the Justices' impartiality and may believe the Justices to be biased in favor of Representative Fields, a victim in this case, and against Mr. Ray." Under Colorado's ethic rules, judges must avoid not only actual bias (such as endorsing Fields in her race) but even the "appearance" of impropriety, or situations in which "impartiality might be reasonably questioned." 

Representative Fields has not yet responded to a request for comment on the motion. 
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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