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The High Price of Dying

The squish pundits and squash-eating liberals are once again questioning the wisdom of Colorado's death penalty. But that doesn't mean squat to Arapahoe County District Attorney Carol Chambers.

Okay, so the death penalty as practiced here has claimed exactly one life since 1968 - that of the eminently qualified Gary Davis, whose sordid career as a rapist and murderer was examined in unflinching detail in these pages a decade ago in "The Killer Inside Him." Okay, so the futile effort to make a few of our least wanted pay the ultimate price has cost close to $50 million, with the taxpayer footing the bill for the legal arguments on both sides. So state representative Paul Weissmann wants to abolish the death penalty and plow the savings into solving cold cases. So death penalty cases tend to be a big waste of time, an excruciatingly prolonged and emotional quest for votes and revenge, not justice.

So what?

None of it matters to Chambers. She's always marched to a different tune -- the executioner's song.

This morning's announcement that Chambers will seek the death penalty for Sir Mario Owens and Robert Ray comes as no surprise to anyone who's followed her turbulent career as a DA. She hinted at this move months ago, stressing that the underlying case involves the murder of a witness who was set to testify against Ray and Owens in another killing -- and witnesses willing to stand up against stone killers are scarce enough already. She's also indicated that she plans to ask for death in the case of two Limon inmates charged with killing another prisoner, another situation that appears to involve reprisals against a witness. That makes Chamber the only Colorado DA chasing two costly death penalty cases at the same time; most of her colleagues wouldn't even consider one after the 2002 U.S. Supreme Court decision that put the power of death back in the hands of juries rather than judges.

How did one prosecutor get so far off the reservation? Our recent cover story on Chambers, "The Punisher," offers some clues. Her maverick career, which includes an ethical quandary that led to her public censure a few weeks ago, also has been marked by fractious relationships with cops, judges and other lawyers -- a streak she seems in no hurry to break. -- Alan Prendergast

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Patricia Calhoun co-founded Westword in 1977; she’s been the editor ever since. She’s a regular on the weekly CPT12 roundtable Colorado Inside Out, played a real journalist in John Sayles’s Silver City, once interviewed President Bill Clinton while wearing flip-flops, and has been honored with numerous national awards for her columns and feature-writing.
Contact: Patricia Calhoun