Last week, after battling for more than a decade to execute Edward Montour Jr. for the 2002 murder of guard Eric Autobee at the Limon prison, prosecutors abruptly caved on the second day of his trial, agreeing to a deal that will keep Montour in prison for life without parole.
The experience left at least one juror deeply frustrated over the waste of time and money devoted to the case -- and deploring the "shameful" behavior of the prosecution in doggedly seeking the death penalty.
This pursuit continued even after evidence surfaced that Montour had been wrongfully convicted for the crime that sent him to Limon in the first place.
Nate Becker, it should be noted, works on the financial side of a criminal defense law firm specializing in DUIs. But attorneys on both sides of the Montour case considered him impartial enough to serve as one of the twelve jurors (and six alternates) selected out of a pool of more than 2,100 candidates over the past two months. The panel was dismissed last Friday -- two days after hearing opening arguments in the case, and hours after the Eighteenth Judicial District Attorney's Office, led by George Brauchler, hammered out the deal with Montour's defense team, which included prominent Denver attorney David Lane, and several others.
In a letter to Westword, Becker describes what attorneys shared with him after the case was over. Here's the letter in its entirety:
"Now that this case is over, I'm allowed to speak about what I saw, heard and how I felt. On Friday I was released from jury duty on this case. I was one of the eighteen jurors (presumptive twelve and six alternates) who were empanelled in this case and whose job it was to determine guilt and if we found the defendant guilty, to then determine whether or not he should receive the death penalty or life in prison without the possibility of parole. I was told on Friday after the case concluded that I was one of the twelve jurors who was going to be deliberating on this case and that I was not an alternate.
Let me start by saying that I think the final outcome was just and right for both sides. The games played to get there, and the refusal by the District Attorney's office to turn over evidence and to seek the truth and to seek justice in this case and in all cases, is abhorrent. The millions of taxpayer dollars spent seeking the death penalty instead of improving and updating corrections facilities, providing better law enforcement and corrections training, improving mental health treatment, and trying to prevent violent crime is shameful. Having a death penalty does not prevent crime. It simply costs the people of Colorado millions of dollars and somehow gives us some false sense of security and justice.
I spoke with the Judge, the Defense team and the [deputy] District Attorneys assigned to this case after court on Friday. Both of the prosecuting District Attorneys admitted that the original murder case, where the Defendant was convicted of murdering his eleven-week-old daughter, Taylor, was likely to be overturned, as the "evidence was overwhelming." They were crying foul that the Judge "hamstrung" them by letting the Defense "retry" the El Paso case to us. The DA's office believed that we would feel sorry for the Defendant as the DAs and elected DA George Brauchler had no doubt that we would walk away believing that the defendant was wrongfully convicted and wrongfully imprisoned. Thus, our sympathy for his wrongful conviction and imprisonment would cause us not to impose death, and as a result the DA's office felt they must get life without parole so Montour never sees the outside of a prison.
The DA's office made no attempt to further investigate the wrongful conviction and imprisonment and instead threw roadblock after roadblock at the Defense to attempt to prevent them from obtaining the records needed to prove this, and to further prevent them from being able to tell the jury -- as we might feel sorry for a man who was mentally ill, wrongfully accused of killing his daughter, wrongfully imprisoned, wrongfully labeled a baby killer in prison, where he was the at the bottom of the totem pole. He was raped, beaten and tormented while in prison, as baby killers are scum and despised just like child molesters are. Essentially, the District Attorney's Office was concerned that telling the jury the truth might cause us to not impose the death penalty. What is wrong with this picture and this mentality?
"We felt the truth might cause you to feel sympathy and mercy, so we tried to prevent the Defense from presenting the truth to you through legal games and maneuvers. When the judge forced us to give up this information, we decided to give the deal the Defense had been asking for since the original sentence was overturned and the original plea withdrawn. The Judge forced us to give the Defense the medical information and X-rays that helped prove the Defense's allegations and assertions that Montour was innocent of killing his daughter. Instead of forwarding that information to the DA's office in El Paso County to investigate the veracity and credibility of the evidence, we decided to throw in the towel because we didn't have enough time to find 'experts' to rebut Defense allegations."
So let me get this straight -- you didn't have enough time to rebut the defense's experts, so you had no other choice? What about finding experts to look at the defense's evidence to first determine its credibility and to ensure the state didn't wrongfully convict someone, before we just try to find experts to automatically rebut whatever evidence the defense is presenting. Isn't the DA's job to seek the truth and justice in all cases? Not just convict the accused? The DA's office admits that the evidence is overwhelming evidence of innocence, so it is going to take us quite some time to find experts that will testify to the contrary. Really? That is what our system has become? Simply lining up experts that will automatically testify to the contrary to whatever the other side says, regardless of the credibility, reliability and veracity of the evidence?
At no time did the DA's office say we imprisoned an innocent man, so we felt life without parole was fair for what he did to Eric Autobee. Instead, once the judge decided we couldn't cover this up any more, we were so handcuffed by his decision that we had to cut a deal. This wasn't our choice or our fault. Don't blame us, we tried everything to kill Edward Montour Jr. Blame the judge, it is the judge's fault as we were not given enough time to find people who would testify to whatever we wanted them to testify to…
I spent portions of seven days in Court as a juror and prospective juror and this case was resolved after one day of trial. I am relieved that this case is over and that I was not forced to make the decision that I was going to have to make. What I learned after just one day of trial and six other days of voir dire was life-changing for me. I have a newfound respect for people who work in a corrections facility. Every day they go to work they put their lives in the hands of the inmates, as the inmates truly choose who gets to go home each night. Why someone would do that for very little pay and even less respect is beyond me. But nonetheless, I have a newfound appreciation and respect for these civil servants. What you see on television about prisons is not even close to what it is like in Limon, Colorado, and many other prisons across the country. That is a scary concept to acknowledge and one most of us would like to pretend is not possible in the world we live in.
My thoughts on the death penalty have forever changed. I was supportive of the death penalty until this trial started. But once it started, I realized how easy it is for people to be wrongfully convicted and wrongfully killed as a result. Being locked up in a cage like an animal for every second of every minute of every hour of every day of every week of every month of every year of every decade is much worse than death. It also saves millions of dollars. Most importantly, it ensures we don't take the physical lives of people who are in fact innocent or wrongfully convicted. Regardless of financial cost or personal beliefs, it should be our priority as humans and as a society to ensure that we demand more of our criminal justice system and demand that we get it right. Until our system of justice gets it right 100% of the time, the death penalty should be abolished. It is better to free 100 guilty men, than it is to convict one innocent man.
Montour could have received the death penalty for killing his daughter in 1997. Now in 2014, the evidence overwhelmingly says he was innocent. There is no doubt he killed the corrections officer in this case and he needed to be severely punished for that crime. I think life in prison was just punishment for what he did to Eric Autobee.
However, his wrongful conviction and imprisonment is an example of our justice system failing us once again, and those failures continue to take away the lives of innocent people. In 1998, the life of Edward Montour, as he knew it, was taken away when he was wrongfully convicted. In 2002, the life of an innocent man, Eric Autobee, was taken by Montour who should have never been there in the first place. What a tragic story and ending all the way around.
P.S. For transparency purposes, I am a member of the Colorado Criminal Defense Bar. I am not an attorney, but I am the Director of Financial and Business Operations for a DUI Defense firm. I was not against the death penalty when I was empaneled as a juror, as most CCDB members automatically are. I have seen the fault's on both sides of the fence and remain neutral in my views, regardless of my professional affiliations. That is why I was selected as a juror and why I was not struck for cause and was not struck pre-emptively by the District Attorney. I was more than willing to give the appropriate weight and credibility to all evidence and to make my decisions based on the evidence presented. While many would feel that I am biased because of my affiliation with the Colorado Criminal Defense Bar, I feel that my legal experience gives me a better understanding and better insight into the process and the obligations that each side has. It wasn't until trial started and I heard from both sides through presented evidence and direct conversations after trial that I developed this opinion. While I understand that the conviction has not yet been overturned in El Paso County, I also understand how rare it is for the DA's office to admit publicly that evidence of innocence is "overwhelming." Yet, they tried to hide and not disclose that evidence to the Defense as they knew that any reasonable person would feel sympathy for someone who was wrongfully convicted and imprisoned. I think this approach and these tactics are shameful. The people of Colorado need to know how our elected officials are spending our money and that convictions and an "eye for an eye" are more important than seeking justice and the truth. Thus I am asking you to share my story with the people of Colorado.