Capital punishment has been a close call for me. When Denver DA Norm Early asked me, at age 29, if I’d prosecute Frank Rodriguez, I requested a week to absorb the file, and consult with conscience and clergy. Fellow prosecutor Mike Little and I obtained the unanimous death verdict against Frank Rodriguez just before Christmas in 1986.
Lorraine Martelli, 54, had been carjacked at 5th and Broadway by serial criminal Rodriguez brothers on the afternoon of Nov. 14, 1984. Lorraine was robbed, raped, brutalized and stabbed to death as she prayed on her rosaries for mercy. Older brother Frank Rodriguez stabbed her 28 times, and then stuffed her in the trunk of her own Chevrolet Monte Carlo.
When Tom Hollar was murdered in 1993 by prior felon Steven Harrington, I asked Denver DA Bill Ritter to seek capital punishment. Colorado’s future governor declined, so Harrington was tried and sentenced to life in prison for killing Tom, plus 200 years more for brutalizing Tom’s wife. Thankfully, Christina recovered and testified, including at sentencing.
Competing against Ritter for Denver DA in 1996, capital punishment was one of my losing issues. It was an honest debate among reasonable people. But what happens when manifestly unreasonable people seize political and prosecutorial power? Running as an unaffiliated, my failed campaign theme was, “Politics and Prosecution are a Terrible Mix.”
Soon after the July 2012 Aurora theater massacre, I appeared on The O’Reilly Factor to explain issues surrounding sanity and capital punishment. The Denver Post asked me that August to opine whether execution was appropriate.
I advocated for capital punishment, writing, “If this is not a death penalty case, what is? Failure to seek or obtain capital punishment for (this perpetrator) could kill Colorado’s death penalty.” In 2015, The Aurora theater killer was convicted, but the jury said no to capital punishment, effectively putting the final nail in capital punishment’s coffin in Colorado.
But there’s still a federal death penalty. Capital punishment was the verdict this August for a MAGA-inspired bigot who slaughtered 11 Jews at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue in 2018. I praised the work of federal prosecutors, but I expect it was for naught.
On July 1, 2021, Attorney General Merrick Garland announced that a moratorium on the federal death penalty was being reinstated. Some say the Tree of Life verdict was only window dressing and virtue signaling. It’s hard to disagree.
There’ve been no Pennsylvania executions since 1999, and current Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro advocates for abolition of capital punishment. The execution of Dustin Higgs by our federal government on Jan. 16, 2021, was accomplished under Donald Trump.
Higgs’ execution culminated a dozen federal executions during Trump’s final year as president. Now, his MAGA fans want four more years, even after four indictments. His “killer mugshot” that caused me to have flashbacks to Harrington 30 years ago, enraptured MAGA fans.
If looks could kill, Harrinton’s glaring would have killed me. Everybody in Judge Markson’s Denver courtroom noticed. So did Court TV viewers. Of the many murderers I prosecuted, Harrington glowered at me hardest, and most constantly, throughout trial.
Most convicted murderers I prosecuted were not sentenced as harshly as Harrington. Vast numbers of violent criminals I helped convict now roam Colorado. My choice to be a longtime prosecutor is permanent. I salute the people who do that job.
It’s modern politics I don’t salute. Powerful people, and an entire political party, are enthralled by MAGA meanness. Or willing to capitulate.
Harrington never testified. Neither will Trump. All that’s left is glaring. And violence, if allowed. Some criminal defendants, constrained from making overt threats, use hard menacing stares and surrogates. I have newfound support for abolishing capital punishment. The reasons are personal.
The fear that keeps me up at night is the retribution promised by the presumptive GOP nominee against his outspoken critics, like me. Next term, Trump promises executions for far more than just murderers. Capital punishment, and on a mass scale, has been the revenge favored by tyrants throughout history. Just ask Yevgeny Prigozhin. Oh that’s right, we can’t.
In Milwaukee last Wednesday, six of eight presidential debaters shamefully raised their hands when asked if they’d vote for Trump even if he’s convicted. Former prosecutor Chris Christie could’ve won the night by interjecting, “Excuse me! Is that for one felony or more than a dozen?” As Fox moderators froze, Christie could’ve quickly further proclaimed, “Never mind. The man’s unfit.”
On Jan. 6, 2021, MAGA supporters chanted for Mike Pence’s summary execution. Pence’s crime: defying President Trump. Yet on Sunday’s “Face the Nation,” without one ounce of irony, presidential candidate Pence promised expedited federal executions.
Meanwhile, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is promising to shoot drug smugglers “stone cold dead.” Back in Florida, three innocent Black people just got shot “stone cold dead” by a neo-Nazi. DeSantis was rightly booed for his racism and irresponsible gun laws.
No way should Trump, DeSantis, Pence, or any of their ardent supporters be anywhere near any machinery of death. Authoritarianism and prosecution are a terrible mix. Let’s kill capital punishment now. And before it’s too late.
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