Robbery Conviction Tossed Over Witness Mental Issues

Tony Blue has served seven years in prison for a robbery that he says never happened.
Tony Blue has served seven years in prison for a robbery that he says never happened. Colorado Department of Corrections
A Colorado Springs man serving a 64-year prison sentence for armed robbery has had his conviction overturned after his attorneys discovered that the state's star witness in the case had been found mentally incompetent in another criminal prosecution twenty years earlier.

The witness's troubled psychiatric history was never disclosed at the 2010 trial of Tony Blue, and both defense and prosecution teams were evidently not aware of it at the time. "This is such a rare case," says David Fisher, one of Blue's post-conviction attorneys. "Prosecutors usually don't use damaged witnesses without telling the defense about it. If they knew this information, they would have to turn it over."

Blue was charged with two counts of aggravated robbery after John Farkas, a Vietnam veteran, and his godson Stephen Johnson accused Blue of taking $9,000 from them at gunpoint in an apartment complex parking lot. Farkas initially told police he had brought the cash to buy a used car for Johnson from Blue, a man whom Johnson had only recently met.

But the case soon proved to be a very murky one. Farkas's story changed in several significant details during the course of the investigation. For example, it turned out that the car was being purchased for Johnson's father, a parolee named Stephen Outler who'd known Blue for many years. Blue was about to be evicted from his apartment and supposedly desperate for cash, but he insisted that it didn't make sense that he would rob someone who knew his identity and could easily have him arrested. Defense attorneys theorized that the robbery was a fiction designed to account for the disappearance of Farkas's money or possibly to settle a score with Blue.

click to enlarge Defense attorney David Fisher says it's rare for prosecutors to "use damaged witnesses" without disclosing their history. - ANTHONY CAMERA
Defense attorney David Fisher says it's rare for prosecutors to "use damaged witnesses" without disclosing their history.
Anthony Camera
Farkas, who suffered from multiple sclerosis and other health issues, was considered too frail to testify at trial; his testimony was presented in a video deposition. Johnson didn't even appear at Blue's first trial, which ended in a hung jury. The second time around, though, prosecutors obtained a guilty verdict, and Blue, who'd committed prior felonies, was sentenced as a habitual criminal to 64 years. At his sentencing hearing, he continued to protest his innocence.

"Shame on Mr. Farkas," he said. "Shame on them who fabricated this story from day one."

In the course of challenging the conviction, Blue's appeals attorneys came across some overlooked documents. It turned out that Farkas had been prosecuted for theft by the same district attorney's office in 1989 for allegedly stealing close to $100,000 from a Colorado Springs Veterans of Foreign Wars Post. The case dragged on for years while various doctors attested that Farkas, who'd endured coronary bypass surgeries, diabetes, lupus, and other afflictions, was also battling memory and cognitive problems that made him unfit for prosecution. In 1995 the DA's office dismissed all counts against Farkas, having determined that he was incompetent to proceed to trial.

A few weeks ago El Paso County District Judge Robin Chittum ruled that Blue had received ineffective assistance of counsel in the robbery case and deserved a new trial. Defense attorneys had also made claims of prosecutorial misconduct in the case, but Chittum didn't agree.

"She refused to say it was the prosecutor's fault for not disclosing this," Fisher says. Blue's prosecutors did know that the case against Farkas was dismissed, but hadn't inquired as to the reasons, he adds: "All they had to do was go on a website and look at the case. With a couple of clicks of a button, they would have found all this crazy stuff. The prosecutor's attitude was, 'I wouldn't typically look this up.' My view is that 's completely the wrong way to go about achieving justice."

Farkas passed away in 2015. The prosecution could once again present his video deposition if they choose to retry Blue, but Fisher anticipates that he would be allowed to tell the jury about Farkas's previous prosecution as well. The 4th Judicial District Attorney's Office has not indicated whether it will appeal Chittum's ruling or dismiss the case, and has not yet responded to a request for comment.
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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