16 June 2008

New Inmate Headed For Colorado's Death Row

Sir Mario Owens has been sentenced to death by a Colorado jury.

He was convicted of first degree murder of Javad Marshall-Fields and the simultaneous murder of Marshall-Fields' fiancée, Vivian Wolfe. Marshall-Fields and Wolfe were shot to death in Aurora on June 20, 2005. Marshall-Fields had been scheduled to testify against Owens' best friend, Robert Keith Ray at trial for the murder of Gergory Vann on July 4, 2004. Marshall-Fields and Vann's brother Elvin Bell were shot and injured in the incident on July 4, 2004, where Vann had been trying to act as a peacemaker.

Sir Mario Owens has already received life in prison without parole in the shooting death of Gregory Vann at Lowry Park in Aurora, where he was convicted of being the trigger man. Owens was also convicted at that time of two counts of attempted second-degree murder for shooting Javad Marshall-Fields and Elvin Bell when they tried to stop him from fleeing the scene of the July 4, 2004, violence.

Owens was also convicted on five other counts in connection with the 2005 killing. According to the Rocky Mountain News: "Owens has an extensive criminal history that includes felony manufacturing and possession of drugs. He was carrying a handgun when police arrested him in November 2005 in Shreveport, La."

A New York Yankees cap found near the scene of the crime was linked to Owens with DNA evidence. There were no witnesses to the crime. Testimony from alleged co-conspirators was important to the vedict in the lengthy trial as well.

Unlike many people convicted of murder and sentenced to death, Sir Mario Owens didn't have any obvious history of mental retardation, mental illness or childhood abuse. He was a high school dropout and bad student, but was involved in sports, grew up in a two parent household, and has a mother with a college degree and a managerial job. His dad who was part of his family his whole life and is still married to his mom is a high school graduate. No close family members have criminal records. His older brother Sir Derrius Owen "is a Federal Express employee in Shreveport and a new father who put his wife through nursing school." One of his cousins is a cop. Another of his cousins is an Air Force officer.

In short, absent uncertainty in the accuracy of the verdict, Sir Mario Owens is the kind of murderer whom the death penalty is designed to punish. He appears, at first glance, more sane than either the one man Colorado has executed in the last four decades, or the two men who have been on Colorado's death row in the last couple of years.

Other Persons Involved In The Crimes

Robert Keith Ray was sentenced to 108 years in prison for attempted first degree murder and being an accessory to murder in connection with the July 4, 2004 incident. Ray will be 73 years old when his first parole hearing arrives.

Ray's sister-in-law (Divinia Ilene Ray), wife (LaToya Sailor-Ray) and brother took the stand for the prosecution in the October 2006 trial. Divinia Ilene Ray and LaToya Sailor-Ray were both facing accessory to murder charges for destroying and/or hiding evidence, and in LaToya Sailor-Ray's case also for drug and weapons charges, but are now in a witness protection program. Robert Keith Ray faces a trial in August 2005 in connection with the 2005 killings.

Parish Ramone Carter, who is currently about 26 years old, faces a trial in connection with an alleged threat made in connection with the 2005 killings in February 2009, but prosecutors are not seeking the death penalty in that case. Parish Carter apparently has a third grade education and is believed to be mentally retarded. But was found fit to stand trial.

Percy Alvin Carter age 45 who is Parish Ramone Carter's father and Robert Keith Ray's stepfather was sentenced to 30 years in prison in November 2006 for drug charges and four years in prison for his role in covering up the July 4, 2004 incident.

Vann was 20 years old when he died. Wolfe and Marshall-Fields were each 22 years old and were CSU graduates. Owens is currently 23 years old. Ray is currently either 22 or 23. Elvin Bell was 30 at the time of the shooting.

Jail guard Nicole Sue Beal, 24, who is white, is accused of having an inappropriate relationship with Ray and introducing a knife to a maximum security part of the jail in March of 2007.

Marshall-Fields is survived by his younger sister Maisha Pollard.

Political Context

Sir Mario Owens, Robert Keith Ray, LaToya Sailor-Ray, Javad Marshall-Fields, Vivian Wolfe, and Gregory Vann are all African-Americans (Wolfe was also part-Asian American). It is safe to infer that both Parish and Percy Carter, Divinia Ilene Ray, and Elvin Bell are also African-American. This is notable because nationwide, statistical evidence has shown the death penalty to be most common in cases with black defendants and white victims.

Arapahoe County is a predominantly white suburb of Denver, Colorado, but Aurora in Araphahoe County, where the events unfolded is one of the most ethnically diverse cities in Colorado. While Arapahoe County is solidly Republican and conservative, it has no history of de jure racism, isn't known for anti-black stereotypes, and although all of Colorado was a stronghold of the KKK in the 1920s. The jury in Owens' trial was all white.

Carol Chambers is the District Attorney responsible for Arapahoe County. She has brought a record number of death penalty cases and also attracted controversy for a variety of reasons. This has secured her a Republican primary challenger in this August's primary election in Colorado. This death penalty conviction may impact the outcome of that election.

Colorado's Death Row

The Rocky Mountain News states that:

There is only one person on Colorado's death row now, Nathan Dunlap, convicted of killing four at an Aurora Chuck E. Cheese's restaurant in 1993.

Dunlap in now age 34, at the time he was 20 or 21. He is black and killed four white victims in suburban Denver (Arapahoe County, in fact). Some sources state that the killing was in 1994 rather than 1993. He had prior violent felony convictions with kidnapping in connection with a robbery at a Burger King.

Dunlap's appeals have nearly run their course. He has a federal habeas corpus petition pending in federal district court. If his appeals are denied there, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court which has already denied his prior appeals, are his only remaining chances at escaping the death penalty short of a pardon. Bill Ritter, the current Governor with the power to pardon him, has shown no sign in his current tenure that he would do so.

Dunlap's appeals have focused on Dunlap's mental health and the failure of his counsel to present his tragic life story to the sentencing jury. Given the 2007 decision of the Colorado Supreme Court in the case of the only other man in Colorado facing the death penalty, Dunlap is likely to be the first person executed in Colorado since 1997 when death penalty volunteer Gary Lee Davis was executed. Realistically, Dunlap's execution, if it takes place, is likely to be in 2010. The last man executed before Davis was sent to the gas chamber in 1967.

The other case that bears mentions in the discussion of Colorado's death penalty is that of Edward Montour Jr. who was sentenced to death in Colorado in 2003 for his confessed October 2002 killing of a prison guard while he was serving a life in prison without parole murder sentence for kiling his infant daughter. He is a classic "death penalty volunteer" who confessed and refused legal representation. When he pleaded guilty he said:

I am antisocial, homicidal and without remorse and will remain a potential threat. The state can kill me, I don't care.

But the Colorado Supreme Court decision in April 2007 reversed the death sentence and remanded the case back to "the trial court for a jury determination of whether to impose the sentence of life imprisonment or death." This hearing has apparently yet not taken place.

Is It Worth It?

The death penalty is very much the exception in Colorado. As of 2006, there were 677 first degree murderers serving life sentence in Colorado.

Given the fact that Sir Mario Owens was already serving a sentence of life in prison without parole (and already faced a minimum sentence of another two such life in prison without parole sentences), his death sentence in this case has done very little to make the public safer. As a multiple murderer, he would surely have been placed in Colorado's highest security prison in any case.

The death penalty Sir Mario Owens faces will almost certainly secure him more effective representation in further appeals than he would have faced had he received a mere life in prison without parole sentence.

An execution for Sir Mario Owens is likely sometime between the year 2018 and the year 2024, if it takes place at all. Sooner within that time frame is more likely than later, because his appeal will be directly to the Colorado Supreme Court, and because three decades after the death penalty has been restored in the United States, many legal uncertainties have been resolved.

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