Supreme Court Denies Challenge of Judge's Removal in Death Penalty Case

In the annals of court rulings, you won't find any more tight-lipped or to the point than the order handed down by the Colorado Supreme Court yesterday, in response to a 56-page petition by defense attorneys trying to learn why the presiding judge was abruptly removed from a long-running death-penalty case.

No explanation, no fancy reasoning, just a flat rejection in a total of fourteen words: "It is ordered that said Petition shall be, and the same hereby is,  DENIED."

Behind those few words, though, is a convoluted scenario that could cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars and months of further delay in the decade-long quest to execute Sir Mario Owens and Robert Ray,  sentenced to death at separate trials for the 2005 murder of Javad Marshall-Fields, who had been expected to testify against the two men in another homicide investigation.

Owens also received the death penalty for the murder of Marshall-Fields's fiancée, Vivian Wolfe, while Ray got life without parole for her death.

As we reported last week, Arapahoe District Judge Gerald Rafferty, who'd overseen the trials of both men and presided over lengthy post-conviction hearings that raised a hornet's nest of issues about possible prosecution misconduct in the case, had been expected to rule on the merits of those claims — but was abruptly removed from his post in April for allegedly violating his contract with the State Court Administrator's Office by working for a private law firm. 

Defense attorneys have questioned that explanation and sought clarification of the circumstances surrounding Rafferty's dismissal, calling his departure at such a critical juncture "troubling" and "unprecedented." But for now, at least, it doesn't appear that the state's top judicial minds are inclined to shed any light on the matter. The fate of Owens and Ray has already been assigned to other judges, who will in all likelihood have to conduct new hearings and reach their own conclusions on the defense's claims of misconduct. 

In response to the ruling, Eighteenth Judicial District Attorney George Brauchler issued a brief statement: “We are pleased with the Supreme Court’s rejection of the defense’s petition, which would have resulted in yet another unnecessary delay in providing finality to a death sentence that was imposed by a jury eight years ago.” 

Owens defense attorneys collectively issued a response of their own: "The defense is disappointed in the order which leaves this case cloaked in secrecy. It is difficult to trust what you cannot see. Transparency is an essential component of justice."
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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