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Death Penalty Prosecution in Colorado Costs State Over $1.6 Million, Ends in Life Sentence

by Matt Clarke 

After spending seven years and more than $1.6 million seeking the death penalty for a prisoner who killed a Colorado prison guard, prosecutors plea-bargained the case for a life sentence. The state is reimbursing the county for the costs of prosecution; the expenses for defense counsel in the case will also be borne by taxpayers. Defense costs often exceed those of the prosecution, but the exact amount in this capital case is unknown, as the defense billing records contain privileged information exempt from disclosure under state law. 

On August 14, 2019, 40-year-old Colorado Department of Corrections (DOC) prisoner Miguel Alonso Contreras-Perez pleaded guilty to first-degree murder for killing Sgt. Mary Ricard, 55, and attempted first-degree murder for wounding Sgt. Lori Gann. He received a life sentence plus 48 years. 

The attack took place on September 24, 2012 at the Arkansas Valley Correctional Facility after Contreras-Perez freed a kitchen knife from its wire-tether cable by chopping at the cable about 15 times. He first used the knife to fatally stab Ricard before attacking Gann. He told investigators he would have killed Gann too, but Sgt. Lisa Orosco walked in, interrupting him. 

From the outset, District Attorney James Bullock announced he would seek the death penalty, against the wishes of the Ricard family and Colorado Governor Jared Polis, who opposes capital punishment. Contreras-Perez, an Army deserter who had been serving a 35-to-life sentence for kidnapping and raping a 14-year-old Colorado Springs girl, initially pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity.

“We’ve requested that they not pursue the death penalty from the get go, but it falls on deaf ears,” said Ricard’s daughter, Kate Benson Smith, who said that seven years of travel and time spent in court hearings had taken a toll on her family. “I don’t agree with the death penalty. We’ve had many, many meetings with Mr. Bullock asking him not to seek the death penalty. I’m disgusted with the justice system. Colorado’s justice system is neither swift nor just.” 

State law authorized Bullock’s office to bill the state for the cost of prosecution, and the state paid the district attorney’s office $1.665 million between October 2012 and July 1, 2019. The high costs of the prosecution reignited a debate in Colorado over capital punishment. 

“Colorado imposes the death penalty on fewer of its death-eligible defendants than any other state,” wrote civil rights attorney Faisal Salahuddin in a guest post for the Colorado Independent. “While Mr. Bullock’s quixotic jousting in pursuit of the death penalty might yield him some votes at election time, it will be all Coloradans – and not just taxpayers in his judicial district – who will foot the bill. Money wasted in a futile endeavor could have been spent on a variety of ways to combat crime, and on rehabilitative services and grief counseling.” 

In May 2019, state Senator Angela Williams introduced a bill, SB19-182, to abolish capital punishment in Colorado. It failed to pass. 

Three prisoners currently await execution on Colorado’s death row; the state has executed only one person since 1977. 



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