CASTLE ROCK, Colo. - A Douglas County judge on Tuesday tossed out a guilty plea by a former Colorado death row inmate in the murder of a correctional officer in 2002.
The ruling is the latest turn in an 11-year-old battle by Douglas County prosecutors and defense attorneys over whether Edward Montour Jr. should be executed for clubbing to death correctional officer Eric Autobee with a heavy ladle in the kitchen of the Limon Correctional Facility.
Montour's defense attorney, David Lane, said for five years his client has offered to accept a sentence of life without any possibility of parole and "live in a super-max solitary confinement cell for the rest of his life."
Lane criticized 18th Judicial District Attorney George Brauchler for rejecting the life-sentence deal and instead pursuing the death penalty against Montour.
"As a result of Brauchler’s decision, the DA’s office has lost a signed, sealed and delivered first-degree murder conviction," Lane said. "…And the Montour case now starts all over from square one after 11 years of endless, costly litigation. In giving up a first-degree murder conviction, all for the sake of attempting to get a death penalty, all things are possible now in this case, including a verdict of not guilty after trial."
"Mr. Brauchler is proceeding in this fashion against the express wishes of the victim’s parents, Bob and Lola Autobee, who have informed Mr. Brauchler that they simply want the case to end and they oppose a death penalty for Montour," Lane added.
Brauchler counters that not seeking the death penalty would effectively be giving Montour a "freebie" in the murder of the prison guard. Montour is already serving a life sentence for killing his 11-week-old daughter, according to court records.
"As with any murder case, the input of victims -- such as the parents of Eric Autobee -- is extremely important," Brauchler said in a statement Tuesday.
"However, my obligation to this community and to the pursuit of justice requires me to consider additional factors, including sending the message that we will not tolerate inmates murdering our prison guards. They deserve our protection. When a man already serving a life sentence for murder kills a prison guard, a 'new' life sentence defies justice, common sense, and makes the taking of Eric Autobee’s life a "freebie,'" Brauchler said.
The prosecution of the accused double-killer has been long and convoluted.
While acting as his own attorney in 2003, Montour pleaded guilty to murdering Autobee. A judge sentenced him to death, even though Montour had requested a jury trial for sentencing, Lane said.
But the Colorado Supreme Court in 2007 struck down the death sentence, noting that the U.S. Supreme court had earlier ruled that a defendant has a constitutional right to have a jury, rather than a judge, decide the sentence in death penalty cases.
The state Supreme Court let Montour's guilty plea stand, but ordered a new penalty phase trial for the man.
During a February hearing, Lane argued that Montour was mentally ill when pleaded guilty to killing the guard and therefore was not mentally competent to act as his own attorney.
In seeking to be executed, the despondent Montour was trying to "commit court-assisted suicide," Lane said.
Prosecutors, however, argued that Montour's guilty plea was a hoax and he knew he wouldn't be executed because of the U.S. Supreme Court mandate against judges issuing death sentences.
In his Tuesday ruling vacating Montour's guilty plea, Douglas County District Court judge Richard B. Caschette noted that when the defendant pleaded guilty he was not represented by a defense attorney and he had a "documented history of mental illness."
"A common theme for Mr. Montour's public defender and advisory counsel is that Mr. Montour wanted to die by execution," the judge wrote.
The judge noted that Montour's former public defender, Sharlene Reynolds, testified, "He wanted to be killed by the state…[H]e was very despondent, very depressed, he wanted to basically throw himself at the state so that the state could kill him."