Trial and Tribulations

Conversations stopped and heads turned as Joanne Cordova walked a
along the fifth-floor corridor of the Jefferson County courthouse. She smiled at those who met her gaze, though she was trembling inside. She'd seen them nudge each other, thought she knew what they whispered as she passed.

Used to be a cop...Colfax hooker...how did that happen? She kept her head high as she walked on toward the courtroom where 37-year-old Robert Lee Riggan Jr. waited for his trial to resume. He was accused of killing her friend, a 22-year-old prostitute named Anita Paley, in May 1997.

Dressed in a conservative, cobalt-blue suit with a dark blouse buttoned to her throat and accompanied by a witness advocate, Cordova looked like a businesswoman. Her thick, dark hair was pulled back from her face, emphasizing her high cheekbones and deep-set, dark-brown eyes. Her nose was slightly crooked--broken by another prostitute several weeks earlier.

All you have to do is tell the truth, she reminded herself. Don't get defensive.

When she was a Denver cop in the 1980s, Cordova had dreamed of a day like this. A day when she would march into a courtroom as a key prosecution witness fighting to convict a killer. The defense attorney would attack, of course, but she would deftly turn aside his cross-examination and, speaking calmly and directly to the jury, testify for the victim. Then the jury would find the defendant guilty, justice would be served, and she would be the hero.

Over a decade later, she was finally part of such a trial, and it had begun just the way she'd fantasized. The day before, October 15, 1998, she had been called to the witness stand by the prosecution and asked about the three days she had spent with Riggan just prior to Anita's death.

Cordova thought things had gone well. She'd been careful to make eye contact with the jurors, as she'd been trained to at the police academy, and they had paid close attention to her answers. A rather striking blond juror seemed particularly attentive, nodding each time a point was made and taking notes on a legal pad.

But this morning the defense attorneys would have their turn, and Cordova knew they'd be casting stones. She was no longer a cop, shielded by a badge and the respect it brought.

No, Joanne Marie Cordova was a prostitute and crack-cocaine addict whose fall from grace would be laid bare by the defense. She had stopped using crack to keep her head straight for the trial, and she wasn't turning tricks anymore. But it wouldn't matter once she was on the witness stand. She felt alone and ashamed, fragile as a robin's egg, and she didn't know how she would hold up under the defense attorneys' attack.

She did know she had to try. For Anita, who was so alone in the world that no one had come to the trial of her accused killer...not even the press, although this was a death-penalty trial. The empty rows behind the prosecution table, normally reserved for the victim's family and friends, spoke volumes about the tragedy of Anita's life.

Cordova could have taken off, like the other prostitutes whom the prosecution had subpoenaed. But she stayed, not just to testify for her friend or because she could easily have been Riggan's victim herself.

She stayed because this trial was also about redemption for Joanne Cordova.
No matter how deeply the defense attorney probed into the darkest corners of her life, Cordova knew he would not find them all. In that courtroom, she alone was aware of how far back the seeds of her self-destruction had been planted.

As she approached the courtroom doors, she saw a tall, well-dressed man leaning against the opposite wall. She recognized him as one of Riggan's defense attorneys, Nathan Chambers. She smiled timidly and murmured, "Good morning."

Chambers nodded, though he didn't smile. "Good morning," he replied.
Cordova turned and walked through the heavy wooden doors. As Chambers moved to follow, he was asked what he'd thought of her testimony the previous day. He shrugged.

"She's a whore."

Joanne Cordova was born into a good Catholic family, one that went to church every Sunday. The kids attended parochial schools, got good grades and stayed out of the way of the strict nuns. Joanne never saw her parents fight. She was never spanked. In the morning a hot breakfast was always ready, and dinner was on the table promptly at 5:30 every night.

Only Joanne and her sister Jeannie, who was ten months older, knew about the "bad thing" that had come into Joanne's life.

When Joanne was about nine years old, her family would go to a neighbor's home on weekend nights, where the adults would play board games while the kids entertained themselves until it was time for bed. Then the man of the house would insist on tucking in the Cordova girls.

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.
Steve Jackson