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Colorado death penalty case challenged after prosecutor bragged about his involvement

“I was your worst nightmare.”

Colorado death penalty case challenged after prosecutor bragged about his involvement

“I was your worst nightmare.”

“This is my resume,” Jack Roth, a former assistant attorney for the Colorado Attorney General’s Office, told a group of students from the University of Colorado last November. A brief pause, as dramatic music fills the room. “I was a cop while I was a lawyer, which means that I was your worst nightmare. I was a lawyer with a gun and a Taser.” So began Roth’s lecture on the state’s death penalty.

Video of Roth’s speech — made while he was still working for the state attorney general — surfaced early this summer. In it, he explains that prosecuting capital cases and going up against defense attorneys “seems like a game.” He also brags about seeking capital punishment for a man who fatally stabbed a corrections officer — even though the victim’s family is adamantly opposed to the death penalty. Now, defense attorneys for the defendant in question, Miguel Contreras-Perez, are using the footage to challenge the legality of pursuing the death penalty. According to the Colorado Independent, lawyers for Contreras-Perez filed two motions on July 31, arguing that Roth revealed details of a sealed case and did not have authority to pursue the harsh sentence in the first place.

By the time he spoke to the students, facts of the case were part of the public record. In 2012, Contreras-Perez was housed at the Arkansas Valley Correctional for kidnapping and raping a teenager. He was sentenced to a minimum of 35 years. While serving his time, he used a kitchen knife to kill correctional Sgt. Mary Ricard and then attempted to kill another. Roth not only rehashed this information to the college students in November, but went on to explain his reasoning for seeking the death penalty.

“What if I told you in my Perez case, Mary Ricard’s family does not want the death penalty? They are very, very religious and they believe that killing is only in God’s hands,” he said. “They don’t want the death penalty. But I’m still going forward with it. Why? Well, I can tell you my reason is that I’m looking out for every other corrections officer out there. He’s already serving 35 to life. If I don’t go death penalty on him, what’s that say to every other corrections officer out there?”

Defense lawyer David Lane told the Colorado Independent that the speech could impede Contreras-Perez’ right to a free trial. In addition to filing a motion critiquing Roth’s brazen remarks, Lane’s team filed a motion to throw out the death penalty option in the defendant’s case. Crowley County District Attorney Jim Bullock — not Roth — should be the only person deciding what punishment to pursue. “The attorney general has no authority to prosecute a case simultaneously with, or instead of, the district attorney,” the motion argues. It claims the attorney general’s office is involved in the case because the Colorado Department of Corrections gave the agency nearly $1 million to take it on.

The news organization reports that Roth left the attorney general’s office within a week of the court filings. A decision regarding potential punishments for Contreras-Perez’ has yet to be made.

The legal drama is unfolding as many Coloradans appear hesitant to execute people for their crimes. In 2015, two prominent cases in which defendants were eligible for the death penalty, including that of Aurora movie theater shooter James Holmes, concluded with life sentences instead. Today, the state has one of the smallest death row populations in the country, with three people — all of whom are black men from the 18th Judicial District — waiting to die. In May 2013, Gov. John Hickenlooper issued an executive order that granted one of the men, Nathan Dunlap, an indefinite reprieve.

“If the State of Colorado is going to undertake the responsibility of executing a human being, the system must operate flawlessly. Colorado’s system for capital punishment is not flawless,” the order stated. The governor pointed to the “inequitable” and “arbitrary nature” of death penalty sentencing and the fact that it doesn’t make communities safer. He emphasized those same ideas in a 2015 op-ed, adding that race and location have determined who gets to live and who gets to die at the hands of the state.

But the Contreras-Perez case shows how fiercely committed many elected prosecutors still are to sentencing people to death. State Attorney General Cynthia Coffman wants the option left on the table unless voters repeal it. Roth belonged to a special prosecution unit dedicated to helping local district attorneys prosecute cases, including “death penalty-eligible homicides,” and to fighting death penalty appeals. The current district attorney for the 18th Judicial District, George Brauchler, did not prosecute the three people sitting on death row there, but he is a staunch supporter of capital punishment and running for governor. If elected, he is sure to take death penalty fervor with him to the state capitol. He has said he will jump start Dunlap’s execution “Day 1.

Besides squaring up against local and federal prosecutors, opponents of the death penalty are facing an uphill battle. The state legislature has tried and failed to abolish it three times since 2009, including one attempt this year. With Republicans in control of the state senate, the punishment isn’t likely to be banned soon. As Colorado death penalty scholar Michael Radelet toldWestword earlier this year, “[t]here are some things it does real well; it allows politicians to create the false impression that they’re actually doing something about crime. It allows them to look tough.”

As the defense team for Contreras-Perez awaits a decision, it is clear that their defendant’s case doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Roth may have been dismissed from the case and attorney general’s office, but set against the backdrop of state politics, the prisoner’s fate could set the tone for future prosecution.

St. Louis prosecutor’s support of death sentence angers minority community

St. Louis prosecutor’s support of death sentence angers minority community

The execution of Marcellus Williams has been indefinitely delayed, but anger at the actions of St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch are unlikely to dissipate anytime soon.

McCulloch has repeatedly said that Williams should be executed, despite newly discovered evidence that he may not have been responsible for the 1998 murder of Felicia Gayle because his DNA wasn’t on the murder weapon and another man’s DNA was.

The NAACP’s St. Louis chapter and Missouri conference have condemned McCulloch, saying that he needs to do more to ensure equal justice for all races.

Williams was scheduled to die last month but Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens issued a stay of execution hours before the execution was scheduled to occur. A five-member board appointed by Greitens will now review the case.

But McCulloch remains convinced that Williams is guilty and should be executed, telling the Associated Press hours before Greitens stopped the execution that he has seen zero evidence that suggests Williams is innocent.

“I am confident that any board and the governor, after a full review of all evidence and information, will reach the same conclusion reached by the jury and the various courts,” McCulloch said in a written statement after the execution was delayed.

That insistence of guilt has frustrated many.

Nimrod Chapel Jr., head of the Missouri State Conference of the NAACP said McCulloch’s attitude is part of a pattern.

“It’s not all prosecutors, but there are those who we believe are not living up to their ethical obligations to seek justice,” Chapel said. “They’re merely looking for a conviction. We should make sure that the people who are paying the ultimate penalty are actually guilty before we ask them to pay that penalty.”

Kenny Murdoch, head of the St. Louis County chapter of the NAACP, praised Greitens for calling off the execution, but said McCulloch’s continuing defense of the death sentence has frustrated and scared the minority community.

“We applaud [Greiten], but then to be betrayed by a prosecutor, that brings fear back into the community,” Murdoch said. “We’re trying not only to ease racial tensions, we’re trying to give hope that this community can stay together.”

McCulloch has also been critical of the DNA evidence. Williams’s lawyers have said that an independent DNA analysis of the knife that stabbed Gale 43 times shows the DNA of an unknown man, but no trace of Williams’s DNA.

But McCulloch dismissed that in an interview with 90.7, St. Louis Public Radio, saying that the DNA evidence was “not of sufficient quantity or quality to identify or exclude anyone.”

The national NAACP had previously called for McCulloch to be replaced after charges were not brought against Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson for the killing of Michael Brown.

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Organizers Call on Florida Gov. Scott to Rein in Polk County Sheriff

Organizers Call on Florida Gov. Scott to Rein in Polk County Sheriff

As residents of Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas prepare themselves for the destructive impact of Hurricane Irma over the weekend, one county sheriff has decided to the seize the opportunity to arrest more people. On Wednesday, Polk County, Florida Sheriff Grady Judd took to Twitter to warn his followers that his deputies would be checking IDs at the county’s emergency shelters and taking anyone with an open warrant straight to “the safe and secure shelter called the Polk County Jail.” Judd also noted that “sex offenders/predators will not be allowed” in the shelters, and that anyone with an open warrant should simply turn themselves in at the jail. Everybody wins, right?

Carrie Eleazer Horstman, the Sheriff’s public information officer, told In Justice Today that a photo I.D. is not a prerequisite to gain admission to the shelters, and that Polk County residents without I.D. will not be turned away. However, Horstman said, “We’ll figure out another way to identify them.”

The Sheriff’s warnings attracted ample criticism from fellow Twitter users, who pointed out that warrants can be opened for low-level offenses such as unpaid traffic tickets, and argued that his tweet put lives at risk by effectively discouraging people from seeking a safe place to wait out the storm.

“[Sheriff Judd] is jeopardizing [law enforcement] officers’ lives and some of the community’s lives by prioritizing open warrants over immediate public safety,” Andrew Ferguson, a criminal law professor at the University of the District of Columbia’s law school told In Justice Today. “If you’re diverting [law enforcement] resources to check I.D.s, it means you’re not helping people who might be in immediate danger.”

The county, which is en route from Tampa to Orlando, is directly in the forecasted path of the storm. On Friday, the county’s emergency management director issued a voluntary evacuation to all residents encouraging them to seek cover in emergency shelters. According to Polk County’s own publicly available map of flood zones, the county’s two central jails are in the Flood Zones A and AE, which are designated the most at-risk of flooding, according to FEMA.

Horstman said there are currently no plans to evacuate the jail, and that when three hurricanes passed through the county in 2004, the jails did not flood. “If that changes, we will definitely safely and securely transport inmates elsewhere,” Horstman added, noting that an additional jail in the south part of the county could accommodate extra inmates if an evacuation became necessary.

Beyond the safety of people who may have open warrants or names on the sex offender registry, activists are concerned that I.D. checks at shelters could discourage undocumented immigrants from seeking cover from the storm. On Thursday, the Florida Immigration Coalition (FLIC) sent a letter to Gov. Rick Scott asking that he “make an official statement to assure Floridians that they will be safe wherever they should seek shelter.”

Horstman, when asked about the I.D. checks, told In Justice Today that “we are not turning away any illegals.”

Other organizations, such as Color of Change, have echoed FLIC’s call to Gov. Scott.

“At a time like this, the safety of every Floridian should be a priority,” said Scott Roberts, Senior Criminal Justice Campaigns Director for Color of Change. “If Grady Judd is going to invest resources in locking people up at a time like this, someone like the Governor needs to step in and stop him from putting lives in danger just to fill his prison cells.”

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