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July 15, 2014

Intriguing sparring over victims' rights in Colorado massacre capital case

This local article from Colorado, headlined "James Holmes case: Death penalty foe Bob Autobee's letter to victims stirs controversy," reports on a notable fight which has broken out concerning victims and victims' rights in high-profile capital cases.  Here are excerpts:

Does the father of a victim in one death-penalty case have the right to contact family members in another capital case?  And, under Colorado law, do prosecutors have any obligation to facilitate that conversation — even if the discussion isn't going to help their cause? The questions are key to a new controversy in the case of accused Aurora theater shooter James Holmes.

The current subject of raging debate in local criminal justice circles is DIVO — not the pioneering weird-rock band, but an acronym for Defense Initiated Victim Outreach, a program that's assuming a growing role in high-stakes cases.   As Melanie Asmar recently reported, the defense team representing Holmes has accused prosecutors of impeding their attempts to contact victims of the 2012 Aurora theater shootings, while prosecutors have claimed that the defense is improperly using the DIVO process to try to sway victims to oppose the death penalty.

But what hasn't been publicly disclosed — thanks largely to Judge Carlos Samour's insistence on redacting the blank out of public pleadings in the Holmes case — is that one of the people seeking to reach out to victims is Bob Autobee, whose own views on the death penalty underwent a dramatic reversal as the effort to execute his son's killer dragged through the courts for almost twelve years.

In 2002, Autobee's son Eric, a 23-year-old correctional officer, was fatally attacked in the kitchen of the Limon prison by inmate Edward Montour Jr., who was already serving a life sentence for killing his eleven-week-old daughter.  Montour pleaded guilty to murder, but the Colorado Supreme Court threw out his death sentence in 2007 because it hadn't been imposed by a jury.  Bob Autobee, initially a strong supporter of the death penalty, gradually became disheartened by the numerous delays in the case and began to push for a life sentence instead.

After meeting with Montour in a restorative justice session, Autobee began picketing the Douglas County courthouse to protest Eighteenth Judicial District Attorney George Brauchler's insistence on pursuing Montour's execution; Brauchler's office even filed a motion in the case seeking to prevent Autobee from addressing the jury at trial.  But the case never got that far.  Last March, just as the trial was starting, startling new evidence suggested that Montour may have been wrongly convicted in the infant death that put him in prison in the first place.  Shortly thereafter, prosecutors agreed to let Montour plead guilty to first-degree murder and receive a life sentence.

A few weeks ago, Montour attorney David Lane, an outspoken opponent of the death penalty, forwarded a letter from Autobee to one of the victims in the Holmes case, urging the victim to distribute it to others.  In the letter, Autobee invites victims to meet with him so he can "offer my insights into this emotional roller coaster in hopes that it may help you to both understand the process you are going through with the prosecution and trial of James Holmes, and to share with you how I finally came to a place of peace and tranquility after fighting the pain and torment I was undergoing for ten years." See the letter below.

Lane says the first victim he contacted evidently decided not to distribute the letter.  A second contact sent the letter to a victim's advocate in the DA's office, "who never distributed it to anyone," Lane says. And that, the attorney suggests, is part of a deliberate effort by prosecutors to squelch DIVO efforts in the Holmes case.

"There's a statute in Colorado that says victims must be informed of their right to participate in restorative justice processes," Lane notes.  "The DAs never tell victims that they have that right or explain what the process is. They're doing everything in their power not to expose any of the [theater shooting] victims to DIVO — because they saw what happened in the Montour case. When Bob Autobee was exposed to DIVO, he did a complete turnaround on the death penalty."

July 15, 2014 at 11:47 AM | Permalink

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