Shades of Black

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Since Neal was not yet in custody, he did not have the right to an attorney. In fact, this was still a police case -- and police may lie in order to apprehend someone who is a danger to the public. But Neal was obviously intelligent, at least in a street-smart sense, and they recognized that he might trip up a cop posing as an attorney. To buy time, Pautler wrote Zimmerman a note saying she should tell Neal that a public defender would be available in twenty minutes. He then called his boss, Jefferson County District Attorney Dave Thomas, to ask about posing as that public defender.

Both knew that if Pautler impersonated a public defender, it could have repercussions not only on the case, but on Pautler's career. Pautler believed that he could make legal arguments for the deception, however. As a deputy district attorney, he was a sworn peace officer with the authority of a police officer, including the ability to make arrests and conduct investigations. And he also knew that the code of professional conduct governing attorneys' actions -- including rules prohibiting deception -- were not hard and fast. But there was no guarantee that a court would agree if defense attorneys appealed Neal's case because of Pautler's actions or brought his behavior up to the Colorado Supreme Court as an ethics violation.

Thomas believed that having Pautler masquerade as a public defender was the best course of action, but he left the decision to his chief deputy. With visions of the crime scene fresh in his mind, Pautler decided that the public's safety outweighed his personal risk. He wrote Zimmerman another note, this one saying that she should tell Neal that public defender "Mark Palmer" had arrived.

Zimmerman handed Pautler the telephone. He was careful to avoid any discussion of constitutional issues, such as Neal's rights, and instead told the killer that he was "looking at some pretty heavy stuff." Neal agreed. "I'm one of the most dangerous people you will ever have the chance to represent," the killer said. "This is not a game."

As the conversation continued, the Jeffco SWAT team was gearing up to nab Neal when the moment came. It arrived a couple of hours later, when Neal drove Holberton's SUV into the parking lot of a Target store. He was taken down at gunpoint; a handgun and shotgun, along with items belonging to his victims, were found in the vehicle he'd been driving.

When advised of his Miranda rights, Neal didn't ask to speak to Mark Palmer or any other attorney. The next day, Jim Aber and Willy Rios of the public defender's office in Golden were appointed to represent him.

But Neal didn't want any lawyers. He wanted to represent himself pro se, which was his right under Colorado law. Claiming he desired to spare his victims and their families the ordeal of a trial, he said he would plead guilty to rape, robbery and kidnapping, as well as three charges of first-degree murder after deliberation, which he knew would expose him to a potential death-penalty hearing. Neal even gave videotaped interviews to sheriff's investigators, waiving his right to have an attorney present. And he confessed to members of the media, too, saying, among other things, that he'd killed the women to avoid having his thefts exposed.

In September 1998, after the preliminary hearing at which Neal was ordered to stand trial, Aber hinted at a possible defense. "Why would he commit murder to avoid being charged with theft?" the public defender asked. But then Neal wrote a number of letters to the court, repeating his demand that he represent himself.

By February 1999, Neal had succeeded in firing Aber and Rios, although he agreed to accept private defense attorney Randy Canney as advisory counsel. And on February 25, acting as his own attorney, Neal pleaded guilty "without a doubt" to the thirteen counts he faced, including the three first-degree-murder charges.

During the hour-long hearing, Judge Thomas Woodford repeatedly asked Neal if he would reconsider and allow an attorney to represent him. Neal refused. The judge asked Neal if he understood that his guilty plea carried only two possible sentences: life in prison without parole or death by lethal injection. He'd been examined by a court-appointed psychiatrist, Neal told the judge, and "he didn't see any reason why I was not competent."

After the hearing, DA Thomas announced that his office would seek the death penalty -- an announcement that met with immediate recriminations from defense attorneys. Going for the death penalty when a defendant was representing himself was "state-sanctioned suicide," said attorney David Lane, a longtime opponent of the death penalty.

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Steve Jackson