But a pending Colorado case raises a profound question that few judges (or prosecutors or jurors) ever have to confront: What happens when the victims of violent crime seek to speak out on behalf of the defendant and not the state? What happens when the family member of a murder victim seeks leave to beg jurors at sentencing to spare the life of the man who killed their son? What responsibility does the prosecutor have in that case? What obligations do the courts have? Do victims' rights sound only when they favor the government and the harshest sentence, or do they sound as well when they cry out for mercy?
So far, the prosecutor in the case, Arapahoe County District Attorney George Brauchler, has answered those questions clearly: He wants to block one couple's efforts to speak out against the death penalty for the man who murdered their child. Brauchler has filed a motion in a pending case seeking to bar Bob and Lola Autobee from participating in the sentencing phase of the trial of Edward Montour, their son's killer. The law only guarantees the rights of victims to "discuss the harm that resulted from the crime," Brauchler argues. But I haven't been able to find a single victims' right advocate who believes that's true.
People of the State of Colorado v. Montour
There doesn't seem to be much doubt, reasonable or otherwise, that Edward Montour killed Colorado corrections officer Eric Autobee in a prison kitchen on October 18, 2002. (Montour was in that kitchen, and in that prison, because he was serving a life sentence for killing his infant daughter.) Less than one year after Autobee's death, Montour pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and was quickly sentenced to death by a Colorado judge. But that death sentence was overturned, in 2007, after the United States Supreme Court ruled in Ring v. Arizona that judges alone, without juries, could not impose death sentences.
Then, last year, a trial judge overturned Montour's conviction and allowed the inmate to withdraw his initial guilty plea in the Autobee killing. Montour was not adequately defended by a lawyer at the time of that plea, the judge ruled, and had a documented history of mental illness. A new trial was ordered. Montour, through his attorney, said he would re-plead guilty to Autobee's murder if he could be spared the death penalty and receive a(nother) sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole. The prosecutor, Brauchler, rejected the offer and went ahead instead with now-pending capital case against Montour.
The last time Montour faced trial for Autobee's death, the victim's family supported the death penalty as an option. Not this time. This time, having educated themselves about capital punishment, and better understanding the nature of Montour's mental illness at the time of Eric's death, the Autobees have been vocally, stridently, ceaselessly against the imposition of death in this case. Earlier this month, for example, as potential jurors in the Montour case were lined up outside the courthouse waiting to learn about the case for which they were summoned, the Autobees picketed the line and pleaded with Brauchler to spare their son's killer.