Impromptu memorials crop up overnight, around the world, as inner grief spills into public outpourings of sentiment. By Buckingham Palace, when Princess Diana died; on Rebel Hill, after the massacre at Columbine High School; outside of the Station nightclub, where almost a hundred people burned to death last week in Rhode Island; at the spots in northwest Denver where two planes plunged to the earth last month, killing all aboard.
A smaller shrine emerged this summer at 20th and Chestnut streets, where six-year-old Abby Greer was struck by a car as she and her family left a Rockies game on August 26. Although much of that tender tableau -- which once included a child-sized chair, stuffed animals and a letter in childish writing reminding people to "watch how you drive" -- is gone, a few dust-covered items remain. This New Year's Day, the lamppost at 15th and Market streets was suddenly surrounded by candles, cards and flowers -- an homage to Michael Garth, shot to death the night before by Elest Carlos Marquez, a former Aurora police officer whose ex-wife had been with Garth on New Year's Eve, according to witnesses. But by last week, when Marquez was ordered to stand trial for Garth's murder, the shrine had disappeared.
Other remembrances are more permanent. In the grass between the sidewalk and Federal Boulevard outside of the West 26th Avenue Safeway is a plaque commemorating two women, striking supermarket workers killed when a car crashed into the picket line in 1996. Although the parking lot nearby has been dug up (the store is putting in gas pumps), Safeway spokesman Jeff Stroh promises that "nothing is going to change" and that the memorial will remain. When T-REX construction forced ListenUp to move its headquarters to a building on East Evans, the specialty audio-video retailer found that it had inherited a cross in the parking lot commemorating a kid who'd crashed there on his motorcycle. His father stops by the spot once a month or so with flowers.
Such memorials are all over town, all over the state -- although none as formal as the white crosses the American Legion has planted along Montana highways, in a program that seems destined for a collision with strict constitutionalists. Fear of church/state lawsuits have doomed similar efforts in this state, and while the Colorado Highway Commission took up the matter of roadside memorials at its July 2001 meeting, it immediately put the discussion on hold, where it's been ever since. "We're damned if we do and damned if we don't," says Department of Transportation spokeswoman Stacey Stegman. Pending any further orders, highway workers simply try to steer clear of any memorials.
"We don't see them much in Denver," says Julius Zsako, head of neighborhood inspection services for the city, "but we do see some expressions of grief. We try to be respectful of that for a few days."
Historian Stan Oliner first became aware of the makeshift shrines in 1964, when he went to a meeting at the Dallas Public Library and learned that historians had been saving mementos left at Dealey Plaza since John F. Kennedy's assassination the year before. When the Colorado History Museum was organizing its '60s show several years ago, Oliner brought in the items that nine Coloradans had left in Dallas.
In May 1999, he and a hundred other people spent three days at Clement Park, collecting the things that mourners had deposited outside of Columbine; he particularly remembers a poster with the words "I don't want to die before I grow up" that a mother had hung on the fence. These remembrances ultimately wound up at the Colorado Historical Society and the Littleton Museum; the Smithsonian Institution was interested in collecting some, too.
Oliner's consuming interest has been "to capture history as it happens," he says. "The shrines are absolutely part of that. Something has happened to our psyches over the last thirty years. We want to leave a piece of ourselves at these sites."
Like the growth sprouting in the ashes of the Hayman fire, shrines keep springing up in the wake of disasters, painful testaments to the devastation. And, like Brandy's cross, remembrances of things passed.
On July 21, 1987, a year to the day after Gary Davis brutally murdered Ginny May, a jury of his peers took only three hours to find him guilty -- and another three hours to sentence Davis to death.
"If you decide death," Davis wrote to Roy Romer in 1990, urging the governor to make an immediate decision on his clemency request rather than let the appeals process run its course, "can't we please get it done?"
But it took ten years to get it done, as Davis's death-penalty conviction went all the way through the federal appeals process. "I want out of this place either by walking or in a box," he wrote. "Lately I've started to pace like the animals in a zoo. People are sent to this building for short-term punishment, not long-term housing. They break your spirit here so they can control you. Hell, I've been broken long before I came here."
In October 1997, Davis was finally put to death -- the first man executed in Colorado, by Colorado, in thirty years. He was also the last.
Because before Davis got the needle, the Colorado Legislature decided to inject itself in the state's death-penalty process. Too few juries were willing to do what Davis's had done, prosecutors argued, and they urged lawmakers to take the death-penalty decision away from jurors. In 1995, with Romer's approval, the legislature did just that, handing the responsibility instead to a three-judge panel, one of whose members was to be the judge who'd presided over a defendant's trial.
But the new system didn't overcrowd death row, either. It sent Cody Neal, who used an ax to murder three women in Jefferson County in 1998, to join Robert Harlan, Nathan Dunlap and Frank Rodriguez (who has since died). And George Woldt, who in 1997 kidnapped, raped, tortured and murdered 22-year-old Jacine Gielinksi, a college student. (Lucas Salmon, his accomplice, was sentenced to life.) And Francisco "Pancho" Martinez Jr. who, along with eight other members of the Bloods gang, kidnapped, then raped and murdered fourteen-year-old Brandy Duvall in May 1997. While the other gang members received sentences of up to life in prison, Martinez -- who'd stabbed Brandy 28 times -- was sentenced to die.
On Monday, the Colorado Supreme Court ordered that the death sentences for Woldt and Martinez be changed to life in prison without parole, ruling that at the time they committed their crimes, Colorado's death-penalty statute -- the one that gave life-and-death decisions to judges, not juries -- was unconstitutional. (Neal's death sentence, which is currently on appeal, is likely to be changed, too.)
"Colorado has a death-penalty law, and the horrible crimes committed by these individuals certainly qualify them for the death penalty," said Attorney General Ken Salazar in response to the Colorado Supreme Court's decision. "I am consulting with the district attorneys and the victims' families concerning further legal action, including possible appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court."
But it was the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in 2002's Ring v. Arizona that ruled out three-judge panels making death-penalty decisions in capital cases, essentially restoring the job to juries. Recognizing the error of their interfering ways, in a special session last year, lawmakers returned Colorado's death-penalty statute to the system that had been in place before they started messing with it. The damage had already been done, however.
"Much of this was motivated by prosecutors and the district attorneys' council," says David Kaplan, an attorney who worked on Martinez's defense and heads the Colorado Public Defender's Office. "In their constant attempt to find more ways to get more death verdicts, they wound up changing the laws in ways they weren't sure would hold up to constitutional scrutiny." And they also didn't succeed in securing more death sentences.
"I've got a lot of years to go in this hole," Davis wrote in 1994, when he had three years to go. "Some days I wish I could lay down and die. I think that's what the prison wants us to do. They loved it in 1990 when I tried to get executed. You should have seen how nice they treated me back then. To hell with them."