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Colorado Prison Murder Prosecutions Include Coerced Witnesses, Withholding of Evidence
Colorado state prisoner Jeffrey Heird was stabbed to death at the Limon Correctional Facility (LCF) in March 2004. Prosecutors became convinced that it was a gang-related killing carried out by prisoners Alejandro Perez and David Bueno, and sought the death penalty. There was no physical evidence clearly linking the murder to Perez and Bueno, so prosecutors built their case on the testimony of prisoners who stood to benefit from their cooperation.
One of the prisoners whom prosecutors claimed was a witness, Ray Wagner, was placed in segregation after he said he had not witnessed the murder. Wagner testified at an October 2007 hearing that he did not see the murder because he was in a different pod at the time. Shortly thereafter, a lieutenant told him he had “pissed off the powers that be” by failing to provide the testimony they wanted, and that “shit rolls down hill....” He was then placed in segregation for a year.
The reason LCF officials gave for segregating Wagner was his alleged involvement in tobacco smuggling. He was transferred to a supermax facility while in the process of administratively appealing his placement in segregation. A hearing board at the supermax found no evidence against him.
Wagner is now suing LCF warden Steve Hartley and other prison officials for violations of his civil rights; his lawsuit remains pending. See: Wagner v. Hartley, U.S.D.C. (D. Col.), Case No. 1:10-cv-02501-WYD-KLM.
Prosecutors claimed that while they offered immunity to some prisoner witnesses, they did not pressure anyone to provide false testimony. However, District Attorney Carol Chamber’s handling of the case has been questionable.
Her office was twice disqualified in the Perez prosecution for misleading court filings, conflicts of interest and other potential ethics violations. She successfully appealed the disqualifications. She also billed the Colorado Department of Corrections for the costs of her prosecution team, resulting in criticism that her office was profiting from the case.
A state court jury found Bueno guilty at trial but refused to impose the death penalty; instead, Bueno received a life sentence [see: PLN, Dec. 2008, p. 50]. Thereafter, in October 2010, District Judge Douglas Tallman vacated the conviction, noting that prosecutors had withheld potentially exculpatory evidence from Bueno’s defense counsel.
“Apparently, someone from the District Attorney’s office made the conscious decision this information was not to be included in discovery because it was not relevant.... The Trial Court cannot say with certainty the District Attorney acted in bad faith by withholding relevant and possibly exculpatory evidence... [But] it is apparent to the Trial Court that a conscious decision was made at some point early in this case to keep the information from the Defendant...,” Judge Tallman wrote.
Chambers is appealing the reversal of Bueno’s conviction; she claimed his defense counsel had the evidence but “sat [on it] for strategic reasons,” and said she was not required “to spoon-feed to the defense every document.”
In the Perez prosecution, Chambers initially sought the death penalty but changed her mind after the disqualifications and the failure to obtain a death sentence in Bueno’s case. The Perez jury returned an acquittal on January 28, 2011. Chief Deputy district attorney Jason Siers blamed the prisoner witnesses, citing credibility issues and complaining that some prisoners had refused to testify even when held in contempt of court.
“The prison environment adds a certain dimension to this,” said Siers.
Jim Castle, Perez’s defense attorney, disagreed, stating that prosecutors were inappropriately trying to “spin” the verdict after they lost a case that never should have been prosecuted in the first place. “There wasn’t any physical evidence linking Perez to the crime,” Castle noted.
Sources: Associated Press, http://blogs.westword.com, Denver Post
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Related legal case
Wagner v. Hartley
|Cite||U.S.D.C. (D. Col.), Case No. 1:10-cv-02501-WYD-KLM|