The Colorado Independent lays out the facts in one of the worst
examples of prosecutorial misconduct ever seen in a death penalty case.
The case was prosecuted for six years under former 18th Judicial District Attorney Carol Chambers. Brauchler, her elected successor, has led the office for the last five years as it has continued rallying to preserve [Sir Mario] Owens’ and other death sentences against a long list of appeals claims. Brauchler, a Republican who has made a name for himself as a death penalty prosecutor, is running for governor.
There is no definitive physical evidence, no confession, and no eyewitnesses who identified Owens in a case prosecutors built almost entirely on the testimony of informant witnesses to whom the DA’s office gave plea bargains, funds, or both in return for their cooperation against Owens.
Among the charges upon which the appeal was based is the office’s failure to disclose thousands of dollars in payments it made to informant witnesses. One of those witnesses was promised and later given a district attorney’s office car. Some were given gift cards for local businesses. One received $3,400 in benefits, including cash for Christmas presents in the months prior to testifying on behalf of the prosecution.
The defense cited the prosecution’s failure to disclose other incentives given to witnesses in exchange for their testimony. If he didn’t cooperate, court records show, one of the main witnesses was threatened with being charged for the murders Owens was accused of and with receiving two life sentences. Another witness, according to the records, received a suspension of his jail sentence on the condition that he help prosecutors in Owens’ case. People working for the prosecution would appear at informant witnesses’ court hearings and ask for lesser sentences on the condition that they testify against Owens, the records indicate. Records also show that informants who had been convicted of crimes were allowed to violate probation and commit future crimes without consequences as long as they cooperated.
The appeal argued that by failing to disclose these deals before trial, the prosecution rendered Owens’ defense lawyers unable to cast doubt on those witnesses’ testimonies and put their credibility in dispute. In doing so, the argument goes, Owens was denied a fair trial.
Incredibly, neither Chambers’s successor in the DA’s office (who is defending the conviction) nor the district court judge (who denied the appeal) dispute that informants were paid in cash, lenient sentences and other compensation, and that none of this was disclosed to the defense. And the case gets only more disturbing from there.
- The withholding of exculpatory evidence continued through the new leadership in the DA’s office. The new DA kept the existing prosecutors on the case. In 2015, two years later, they revealed another file full of secret payments to eyewitnesses in the case.
- For seven years after Owens filed his appeal, the courts imposed a gag order keeping the appeal secret. According to the Independent, to this day some exhibits are still secret.
- The judge who oversaw the trial and appeals was apparently growing increasingly skeptical of the state’s case against Owens. That is, until he was abruptly fired by the state supreme court. The firing was apparently over a personnel matter, though the Independent article casts some doubt on that explanation.
- The new judge ruled on Owens’s appeal “without having seen or heard from a single witness about errors in the capital proceedings.”
Then there is the matter of the original DA, Chambers. She has since left office, but she left quite the record. Among her greatest hits: