Sir Mario Owens: Attorneys decry secrecy in death penalty case

Five years after an Arapahoe County jury decided that that he should be executed for murder, transcripts and other records in the case of Sir Mario Owens remain sealed under a court order that prohibits journalists, death penalty activists or even the defendant's family from viewing them -- an unprecedented level of secrecy that his attorneys claim is depriving the public of vital information about the case, including allegations of prosecution misconduct.

In a recently filed petition to the Colorado Supreme Court, urging the release of unredacted records in the capital case, defense attorneys James Castle and Jennifer Gedde claim that "Mr. Owens has a present and powerful need to publish the facts and circumstances surrounding his case, which include many demonstrable instances of government misconduct, including withholding much favorable evidence, presenting false evidence, and destroying evidence."

In separate trials, Owens and codefendant Robert Ray were both sentenced to death for the 2005 murders of Vivian Wolfe and her fiance, Javad Marshall-Fields; Marshall-Fields had been expected to testify against the two men in another homicide investigation. Their prosecution, one of several death-penalty cases pursued by former Eighteenth Judicial District Attorney Carol Chambers, was conducted in an atmosphere of exceptionally stringent security, with attorneys subject to gag orders, many court motions filed under seal, witness names purged from documents and transcripts denied to news organizations -- all ostensibly to protect witnesses from possible intimidation and reprisals.

At the time, many of the measures were supported by the defense teams, who regarded the intense publicity surrounding the case as a hindrance to a fair trial. But the restraints also had the effect of muffling controversies over the defense's limited access to witnesses and evidence and some unusual moves by Chambers's office, including donating a car to one prosecution witness to aid in her relocation -- and then failing to disclose that arrangement to the defense before trial.

The routine sealing and redacting of records was supposed to be a temporary precaution, but it extended well into the post-conviction stage. Last year, attorneys for Owens asked that the records be unsealed, arguing that the continuing court order was "contrary to the public's interest and fundamentally unfair." District Judge Gerald Rafferty refused, though, ruling that "witness protection issues" outweighed the right to know.

Continue to read more about Sir Mario Owens's death penalty case, including the original document.
KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
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

Latest Stories