One of the last three men to be on Colorado death row, currently serving a life sentence, is asking the Court of Appeals to grant him a new trial amid the widespread injustice that , according to Sir Mario Owens, led to his murder conviction in 2007.
Owens now claims he received ineffective legal assistance during the trial and that a juror not only lied in court, but also had a series of very unorthodox personal connections to the victim and several witnesses.
“These are constitutional protections of extraordinary importance,” lawyer Jonathan D. Reppucci told the three-judge panel that heard Owens’ appeal on Tuesday. “Justice must realize not only the reality of fairness, but the appearance of fairness.”
An Arapahoe County jury initially convicted Owens of the murder of Gregory Vann, 20, on July 4, 2004. A separate jury in 2008 again convicted him of the murders a year later of Javad Marshall-Fields and Vivian Wolfe, both 22 years old. Marshall-Fields was to testify against another suspect in Vann’s murder. Owens was sentenced to death for the Marshall-Fields and Wolfe murders, which Governor Jared Polis commuted to life in prison after the state legislature abolished the death penalty last year.
In a 222-page dossier filed with the Court of Appeal, Owens meticulously explained how the evidence would have suggested early on that someone else had murdered Vann in a chaotic scene at a rally in Lowry. Park. From an initial police bulletin with three descriptions of suspects who did not match Owens to the preferential treatment prosecutors alleged from one of the only witnesses who identified Owens, the defense at trial was denied access to evidence crucial, argued the appeal.
Owens also criticized his public defenders at the trial for a strategy that was not only poor, but so flawed that it violated his constitutional right to effective representation. Specifically, his attorneys attempted to argue that the case was a mistaken identity – but also Owens defending himself, which could not be true.
“It was a full pants seat… I wasn’t ready to do it. We didn’t have a coherent trial strategy,” one of his defenders said on the appeal record.
In a very unusual situation, Owens then pointed to the potential bias of a woman on his jury who, at the time, was called Stephanie Griggs and referred to in court documents as Juror 75. She did not. never revealed during the trial that the witnesses testifying were her. friends of her son, that the victim – Vann – had been a guest in her house and that she had provided false information in her jury questionnaire.
The appellate judges struggled to know whether Juror 75, although he had these parties at her house as children, had actually recognized them as such during the trial.
“We have the testimony of his son that [Vann] was a frequent guest at the house and loved by many of her friends, ”said Justice Craig R. Welling. “But we don’t have a conclusion one way or the other as to whether or not she knew Mr. Vann. . “
Senior Deputy Attorney General Jillian J. Price said Juror 75 did not know the full names of the witnesses and did not say he specifically recognized them.
“It’s like going to a party and meeting someone I know is Bill and that’s all I know like him,” she said. “Then I see ‘Bill Smith’ on a cold witness list. There’s no way I can match these two people.”
But Owens countered that Juror 75’s relationship ran deeper. Juror 75 admitted that some witnesses who were friends of her son told her “Hi Mom” during the trial, and that when she went to her son’s apartment in the middle of the proceedings, she saw and hugged someone who had just testified. Her son later told her that her “homeboys were testifying” and that she had to apologize for the trial.
Price attempted to minimize contact, telling the panel that the witnesses were not friends of the juror 75 and that the court should avoid a “slippery slope” by examining the associates of the children, spouses and even fellow jurors for conflicts.
“She saw a witness testify out of court the night he testified and had an interaction with him,” Welling replied. “It’s not, ‘I have a colleague who went to dinner with someone once.’ They’re pretty first and second degree connections. ”
At one point, Juror 75 communicated with trial judge Michael Spear through a bailiff that she recognized someone in the courtroom as well as other “people.” . The bailiff allegedly told him that the judge had said it was “not a problem”. The Appeal Board expressed concern that the specific situation of juror 75 was lost in the translation.
“I don’t think anyone would dispute that if or all of this information had been known to the trial judge,” Judge Michael H. Berger said, “this juror would not have deliberated on this case.”
The Sixth Amendment guarantees defendants the right to be tried by an impartial jury, which means jurors must decide a case based solely on the evidence presented at trial.
Reppucci asked the appeals court to consider whether extraneous information, such as juror 75’s personal contact with the witness and his son’s directive, would have influenced a reasonable juror, regardless of whether the contact had him. really biased. Spear had directly asked the jury that if anyone recognized a witness “from a location outside the courtroom,” they should bring them to the attention of the court.
Previously, Christopher J. Munch, a retired district court judge, had been specially appointed to review Owens’ post-conviction claims. Owens argued before the Court of Appeal that Munch’s handling of the case was deeply flawed. In addition to significantly restricting the in-person testimony of Owens’ witnesses, the defense argued that Munch offered no assessment of outside influences on the juror.
On appeal, Owens reported several bogus responses to the jury’s tribunal questionnaire 75, where she falsely stated that she was not a victim or party to legal proceedings, and claimed that she did not recognize the names of Vann or Marshall-Fields. The defense alleged 14 court proceedings in which juror 75 was a part and noted that the Marshall-Fields and Wolfe murders took place around the corner from where juror lived 75.
The attorney general’s office excused the errors as “reckless” and said juror 75 did not make the connections until after the trial.
“Because his bogus answers and non-disclosure deprived Owens and the court of critical information that provided multiple grounds for dismissing him, Owens is entitled to a new trial,” the defense insisted.
On several occasions during oral argument, Reppucci appeared troubled by the panel’s unfavorable line of questioning, before stating at the end that “it worries me that this tribunal is going down that route, but the tribunal will do what the tribunal will do. “
“We haven’t said which path we’re taking, so don’t worry yet,” Berger warned. “We’re trying to figure out what to do.”
Reppucci apologized and noted “this is a difficult case”.
Likewise, the pleadings were difficult to watch for Rhonda Fields, the mother of Marshall-Fields and now a Democratic state senator for Aurora.
“My son was murdered in 2005 and I am facing the possibility of a new trial this week,” she said after witnessing the proceedings in person. “It’s really hard to understand what justice looks like.”
Owens suggested to the court of appeal that Robert Ray, who was also sentenced to death for the Marshall-Fields and Wolfe murders, was the one who killed Vann. The appeal board’s decision in Vann’s murder could affect proceedings in his death penalty case.
The case is People c. Owens.