Shades of Black

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Defense attorneys were quick to come to Frasher's support. Cleaver called Smith's accusations "outrageous." Phil Cherner, vice president of the Colorado Criminal Defense Bar, told the Rocky Mountain News: "The legislature has seen fit to give this awesome task to three-judge panels. I can't imagine a decision that would be more difficult. We have a trial, a lengthy sentencing hearing, the judges come up with a decision, and then some DA in the Springs pops off and says they don't understand why he didn't get the death penalty. That's what we pay judges to do. Sometimes, Miss DA, you're going to lose."

State Senate President Ray Powers, who represented El Paso County, said he would introduce a bill in the next legislative session to change the state's death-penalty system once again, to a system that would let the trial judge decide the sentence, as Powers initially had wanted back in 1995. Too many judges were philosophically opposed to the death penalty for the current plan to work, he said. "A lot of them were defense attorneys," he added. "The judge from Pueblo was a defense attorney, which made it hard for him, when he'd been arguing against it for years."

Defense attorney Dave Kaplan, a leading opponent of the death penalty, argued that Colorado's law should never have been changed in the first place. Powers's latest proposal "irritates me to no end," he said. "Who died and made him God? Justice should not be determined on the whims of a politician or on the whims of any individual."

If anything, the state should return to allowing twelve jurors to decide death-penalty cases, he said. Prosecutors "didn't like jurors deciding because they thought it was too awesome a decision for an average citizen to make," he added. "But guess what? Judges find it a pretty awesome decision also."

It was an expensive decision, too. That August, the state reported that so far, more than $2.5 million had been spent on prosecuting -- and defending -- Robert Riggan, Jacques Richardson, Danny Martinez, Francisco Martinez and Lucas Salmon, as well as several other defendants who'd never gotten as far as a death-penalty hearing, for one reason or another.

The impact wasn't just economic; resources were strained as well. When judges were appointed to death-penalty panels, their dockets had to be shifted to other judges for the duration of the panel.

Defense attorneys said they'd warned legislators that prosecutors eager to seek the death penalty would put more defendants before those three-judge panels, adding to the state's expenses. In turn, El Paso County DA Smith, who also served as president of the Colorado District Attorneys Council, blamed rising costs on defense attorneys, claiming they were trying to get rid of the death sentence by making death-penalty cases cost-prohibitive. When a man's life was at stake, defense attorneys countered, they had the moral responsibility to incur any cost necessary to make the state prove its case.

On June 30, 1998, William Lee "Cody" Neal went to a building-supply store, where he purchased, among other things, eyebolts, duct tape, rope and a seven-pound maul (half ax, half sledgehammer). He then returned to a townhouse on West Chenango Drive outside Morrison, where he'd lived since July 1996 with 44-year-old Rebecca Holberton.

A consummate liar, Neal, 42, who'd hinted to friends and acquaintances both that he was a bounty hunter and a hit man for the mob, owed Holberton, a divorcee who worked for US West, more than $70,000. Now she wanted the money back, she told friends, as a prelude for getting Neal out of her life. She was already renovating the townhouse, which had butcher paper taped over the windows and just plywood flooring in the living and dining rooms.

After he returned from the store, Neal sat Holberton in a chair in the living room, telling her he had "a surprise" for her. He placed a briefcase on her lap, intimating that it contained her missing money, and a blanket over her head. Then he crushed Holberton's skull with the blunt side of the maul.

On July 3, Neal brought another divorced woman, Candace Walters, 48, whom he'd conned into loaning him about $6,000, to the townhouse. At the urging of her daughter, Holly, Walters had been trying to learn more about the "mystery man" Neal played to the hilt. But Walters, who worked as a waitress and needed her money, also half-believed his tales about the large amount of money he was about to receive; Neal had even convinced her to sell her car in anticipation of the car she'd receive, along with her money, when they went to Las Vegas to collect his funds. But first, he said, he had "a surprise" for her, too.

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Steve Jackson