Three-Judge Panel Death Sentences Overturned

Two Killers On Colorado's Death Row Given Life Sentences

The Colorado Supreme Court on Monday ruled unconstitutional death sentences handed out by three-judge panels in two murder cases.

The court ordered George Woldt and Francisco Martinez Jr. to be resentenced to life in prison without parole.

The decision came after death sentences issued by three-judge panels in Arizona were declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in June. The justices ruled that juries, not judges, must determine whether the death penalty is appropriate.

Colorado lawmakers then changed the law to require juries to handle sentencing in capital cases.

In its ruling, the state court said the 1995 law setting up the three-judge system was unconstitutional because judges made the factual findings necessary to justify a death penalty.

Attorney Jean Dubofsky, who represented Martinez, said she was not suprised by the ruling because the U.S. Supreme Court had hinted that Colorado's law was unconstitutional.

"I thought the people had stretched pretty far to make their arguments in this case and could have saved the state a lot of money if they had just conceded that the statute was unconstitutional and that the defendants sentenced under it were entitled to life in prison," Dubofsky said.

State Public Defender David Kaplan said the state court followed clear directions set by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Attorney General Ken Salazar was angered over the court ruling.

"Martinez and Woldt kidnapped, raped, tortured and murdered Brandy Duvall and Jacine Gielinski; because of the heinous nature of their crimes, the District Court judges' decisions, in my view, properly sentenced Martinez and Woldt to death," Salazar said.

"Colorado has a death penalty law, and the horrible crimes committed by these individuals certainly qualify them for the death penalty," Salazar continued.

"I am consulting with the district attorneys and the victims' families concerning further legal action, including possible appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court."

The decision in the Arizona case overruled a 1990 Supreme Court ruling that allowed death-penalty sentencing by judges. In that case, the high court determined that the Constitution requires that a jury determine guilt, but allows a judge to determine whether aggravating circumstances exist that justify the death penalty.

Five states -- Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana and Nebraska -- adopted laws in which judges conducted sentencing in death-penalty cases.

"What the sponsors and proponents did not anticipate in 1995 was that they were relying on an opinion of the U.S. Supreme Court which would be overturned some twelve years after issuance," the state ruling said.

During arguments in December, attorneys for the state argued that juries in both cases had made the necessary findings for the death penalty. They asked that the sentences stand or that a new jury be impaneled for resentencing.

Attorneys for Woldt and Martinez argued that the U.S. Supreme Court ruling required that their clients' sentences be overturned and that backup sentences of life in prison without parole be imposed.

Woldt was convicted in the April 29, 1997, kidnapping, rape and assault of Jacine Gielinski, a college student in Colorado Springs.

Martinez was convicted in the 1997 kidnapping, torture, rape and murder of 14-year-old Brandy Duvall in Commerce City. Her battered body was later found in Clear Creek Canyon.

The ruling said while the Legislature last summer gave the Supreme Court discretion to affirm Woldt's and Martinez's death penalties or order new sentencing before a jury, the court could not make such orders without violating the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in the Arizona case. That left the court with no choice but to order sentences of life in prison without parole, the ruling said.

Owens Reacts

Governor Bill Owens issued the following statement after the decision was handed down Monday:

"The action by the State Supreme Court was disappointing, although not surprising. As I said last June when the U.S. Supreme Court issued its ruling regarding the death penalty, I had great concern that three convicted murder-rapists on Colorado's death row might escape the death sentence. Sadly for the victims and their families in two of the cases, those concerns have been realized.

"I remain personally convinced that because of the heinous nature of these crimes, any jury would have imposed the death penalty in these cases.

"I am a strong supporter of the death penalty. There is no question in my mind that it is a deterrent. That's why, after the decision rendered by the U.S. Supreme Court last year, I called the legislature into special session to make the necessary changes in state statute. Unfortunately, the state cannot retry those earlier cases under the revised statutes. Two vicious criminals have been given a second chance to live, a chance they never gave their victims."

Decison Could Affect Jeffco Death Case

There are three other men who have been sentenced to death in Colorado. Two of them were sentenced by juries.

The initial appeal in the case of the third, William "Cody" Neal, is pending in state Supreme Court because all death sentences are automatically appealed. He was sentenced to three death sentences after pleading guilty to killing three women and raping a fourth in Jefferson County in 1998.

Kaplan said Monday's ruling could affect Neal's case.

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