Murderers' Row

The three judges entered the Denver courtroom crowded with public defenders, prosecutors, death-penalty activists and friends and family of the victim. They had all gathered this March morning to hear if Donta Page would be sentenced to die for the murder of Peyton Tuthill.

The crime was brutal. Page had broken into Tuthill's Gaylord Street duplex on February 24, 2000, helped himself to a beer, then grabbed a knife when the young woman came home a little before noon to let her dog out. He'd come at her, slashing with the knife, beating her, raping her, cutting her throat, then stabbing her to death...all as she begged him, screamed for him to stop.

Before Page's trial last December, his defense attorneys had announced that he was willing to plead guilty to everything -- felony first-degree murder, rape, assault, burglary -- except "first-degree murder after deliberation," the charge most likely to result in a death sentence. Page's crime had been "opportunistic," his lawyers argued, but Peyton's murder was not premeditated.

But the prosecutors had rejected any plea deal, and the jurors had found him guilty of all charges, paving the way for a death-penalty hearing. Under a state law that went into effect after June 1996, a three-judge panel, rather than a twelve-member jury, would decide if Page lived or died. The Donta Page case was just the eighth in which a panel of judges had decided the defendant's fate; so far, panels had handed down only three death sentences.

Now the judges took their seats on the dais. Even though the law was relatively new, all three had served on death-penalty panels before. The trial judge, Denver District Court Judge William Meyers III, had been on the panel considering the fate of Jacques Richardson eighteen months earlier. Leland Anderson, a Jefferson County District Court judge, had presided over the Danny Martinez Jr. case at roughly the same time. Brooke Jackson, also from Jefferson County, had been one of the judges on the state's first death-penalty panel, Robert Riggan's hearing in April 1999.

None of those killers had been sent to death row. And of the three judges, only Anderson had previously cast a vote for death.

Page, a huge man weighing more than 300 pounds, sat with his defense team, Jim Castle and Randy Canney. They'd argued that what their client had done to Peyton Tuthill wasn't in the same category as the murders that had brought in death row's current tenants: Frank Rodriguez, Robert Harlan, Nathan Dunlap, Francisco Martinez and George Woldt. Or as bad as the crime committed by Gary Davis, who in 1997 became the first man executed in Colorado in thirty years. In legal terms, this was the "proportionality review."

Across the aisle were the prosecutors: Denver chief deputy district attorneys Henry Cooper and Phil Brimmer. They'd argued that Page fit within the legal parameters for the death penalty -- proportionality review notwithstanding.

In the row behind the prosecution table, Peyton's family and friends waited. Her father, Steve, who hadn't wanted his daughter to move to Colorado, had told the judges that "this beautiful child wasn't just murdered -- she was slaughtered." Her mother, Pat, sat clutching a photograph of Peyton on horseback with snow falling around her, which she'd brought to court each day to remind the judges that her daughter had once been a beautiful, loving, kind young woman...not a "case" to be argued over by lawyers.

The justice system had proven far crueler than Pat could have imagined. The worst had been listening to the defense attorneys talk about how her daughter's murder, while heinous, was not as heinous as some other murder. As if killings could be ranked and rated.

It was almost over -- this part, at least. Judge Meyer told the courtroom that he would tolerate no outbursts, then began to read the sentencing order: Donta Page would not be sent to death row.

As Meyer continued to read, Pat rose from her seat. She knew what was coming. She'd heard it before and didn't want to hear it again. Not the details of that terrible day. Not the excuses for Page. Not the idea that Peyton's death somehow wasn't "as bad" as other deaths. Not that killing her killer would "lower the bar" for the death penalty in Colorado.

She wanted to scream at the defense lawyers and the judges. What else would he have had to do to Peyton? Decapitate her instead of just cut her throat? Dismember her rather than nearly cut off her thumbs? How many more times did he have to stab her? How many more ways did he have to rape her?

But she remained silent. Holding her ex-husband's hand, she turned her back on the judges and lawyers, leaving them to their debates.

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Steve Jackson