Why Boulder DA Isn't Seeking Death Penalty in Horrific Ashley Mead Murder

Ashley Mead. Additional photos and more below.
Ashley Mead. Additional photos and more below. Courtesy of the Boulder Police Department
Boulder's Adam Densmore has been arrested and charged with first-degree murder in the death of Ashley Mead. The details of the homicide are particularly shocking; the largest part of Mead's body recovered to date is her torso, from which the organs had been removed, according to Densmore's arrest affidavit, on view below. However, Boulder District Attorney Stan Garnett has decided against seeking the death penalty in the case, and in general, he believes the circumstances of a killing shouldn't be the sole factor for determining whether or not capital punishment is appropriate.

"It's an understandable reaction from people reading about something like this," Garnett acknowledges. "But we deal with a lot of horrific crime and dangerous people. And I don't think it's an appropriate societal response for a prosecutor to say, 'This crime was so bloody and so awful that we need to impose the death penalty simply as societal retribution.' I don't think that's an appropriate use of the death penalty."

On February 14, Valentine's Day, the Boulder Police Department put out a public alert about Mead and her daughter, Winter, who marked her first birthday on January 7; authorities had been contacted after Mead didn't show up for work at Boulder County Headstart. The BPD pointed out that "the child may be with her father, Adam Densmore," who was believed to be driving a 2001 white Volvo station wagon.

The next day, February 15, Densmore was arrested in Okmulgee, Oklahoma, thanks to GPS tracking of his cell phone; Winter was recovered safely at the same time. (The child was temporarily taken into custody by Oklahoma Child Protective Services personnel until she could be reunited with Ashley's family.) The BPD subsequently announced that Densmore was thought to have left Boulder on February 12, driving south to Raton, New Mexico, before traveling through the Texas panhandle to Haughton, Louisiana, where his family lived. Police theorize that he left Louisiana on the morning of the 14th and spent the night in Conway, Arkansas, before heading to Oklahoma the next day.

The department added that "investigators now believe Ashley Mead was killed in Boulder and her body [was] at least partially dismembered just outside of Shreveport, Louisiana. There are concerns that some of the victim’s body parts may have been discarded in a variety of communities the suspect passed through after the homicide," including Okmulgee.

click to enlarge Adam Densmore's booking photo. - BOULDER POLICE DEPARTMENT
Adam Densmore's booking photo.
Boulder Police Department
The affidavit, which details acrimony between Mead and Densmore (he's quoted talking about a fight on the 12th in which he allegedly told her, "I hate you and I hope you die"), notes that surveillance footage from an Okmulgee Walmart and a nearby gas station captured images of a white station wagon and a person matching Densmore's description carrying a baby. A later search of the gas station dumpster where the vehicle had stopped yielded a purple suitcase, and "the examination of its contents revealed a black plastic trash bag containing a human torso," the affidavit states. "The head and hands were missing from the torso, as well as the organs had been removed."

Densmore was promptly moved to Colorado, where he was charged with murder. But this week, Garnett made his death-penalty announcement.

When asked what led to his decision, Garnett says he can't go into details about a pending case, "and I also want to be respectful of the victim's relatives, who are fine people and have gone through a horrible time. But I'm an opponent of the death penalty. I've argued for its repeal a number of times."

He adds that "in individual cases, I want to make it clear to victims' families that decisions about the death penalty are separate from my policy positions. I always want to sit down with them and talk about the practicality of what will be involved in the death penalty: how long it takes, the different dynamics of a death penalty trial as opposed to one simply about guilt or innocence. I've done that with every [appropriate] case, and I'm respectful of my obligation to talk to each individual while being consistent with my policy positions."

Garnett's anti-death-penalty views are informed by "four reasons I feel it should be repealed. First is the expense of a death-penalty trial, which is enormous. The second is the length of time between when the crime occurs and an execution can occur. Even if it's carried out relatively promptly, the average for that is somewhere between fifteen and twenty years, and that's a very difficult time for families, because there's no resolution of the case that whole time."

click to enlarge Three photos of Ashley and Winter Mead. - FACEBOOK
Three photos of Ashley and Winter Mead.
The third reason, Garnett continues, is "the randomness of the death penalty. The fact that in Colorado, the three people on death row [Nathan Dunlap, Robert Ray and Sir Mario Owens] are all African-Americans who went to the same high school [Overland] reflects to me that the death penalty is sought and sanctioned by prosecutors for somewhat random reasons, and that who suffers the death penalty is random. And the final reason is that I'm convinced the death penalty contributes nothing to public safety. We are in an era with modern prisons that are essentially escape-proof, and we have life without the possibility of parole. So the death penalty does nothing to protect the public."

Even so, Garnett stresses, "My opposition to the death penalty is not philosophical. You could describe for me a heinous crime, and I could say, 'The death penalty would be fine for that guy.' So my opposition is rooted in the fact that it's been impossible for the U.S. to figure out a death-penalty system that executes only the people who truly deserve it in an efficient and consistent fashion, and it's way too costly. The cost of a death-penalty trial in Boulder County would be more than the entire annual budget of my office."

Does Mead's family support not launching a death-penalty prosecution? "I don't want to speak for them," Garnett replies. "They're entitled to their own view on things, and they've had a lot to process. But I will say they are good people who are reacting as one would expect to the sudden and horrific death of their daughter. And one of the things I've learned in 35 years of practicing law and nine years as district attorney is that one of the most important things a prosecutor can do with a victim's family is keep them appropriately informed about what's happening. We're not counselors; we can't deal with the mental-health aspects of things. But we can say, 'Here's how the system works, this is how long we expect it will take, and we'll help you attend the hearings' — that kind of thing. And that's what we try to do."

Thus far, the public response to not trying to put Densmore to death has been mixed. "I get comments on pretty much everything that happens in my office," Garnett allows. In this instance, "many are supportive, but some are not."

Here's the arrest affidavit for Adam Densmore.

Adam Densmore Arrest Affidavit

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
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