Bob Autobee was a corrections officer. His son, Eric, followed in his footsteps, and was murdered by Edward Montour, a prisoner already doing life. Bob wants to speak at the sentencing of his son’s killer, as is his right under law as a victim, but a legal battle is at hand to stop him, to silence him.
Arapahoe County District Attorney George Brauchler . . . wants to block one couple’s efforts to speak out against the death penalty for the man who murdered their child. Brauchler has filed a motion in a pending case seeking to bar Bob and Lola Autobee from participating in the sentencing phase of the trial of Edward Montour, their son’s killer. The law only guarantees the rights of victims to “discuss the harm that resulted from the crime,” Brauchler argues.
What distinguishes the Autobees is that they are against the death penalty. They want to speak at Montour’s sentencing not to appeal for his death, but for his life. District Attorney Brauchler won’t stand for it.
Colorado law “only guarantees the right of the victims to discuss the harm that resulted from the crime,” Brauchler argues, and this limits “evidence from the victims to the characteristics of the victim and the impact of the crime on the victim’s family.” It is “not the court process that can be attacked by the victims,” prosecutors assert, before claiming that Montour’s Eighth Amendment rights will be implicated if the Autobees speak out in his favor.
The Autobees have offered a reply to the prosecutor’s stance:
Bob would like any jury considering the appropriate penalty for Eric’s killer to know who Eric truly was and how his loss has impacted the Autobees. The Autobees loved Eric deeply, and now remember him for his peace-loving nature, his love of the outdoors, and his innate desire to find moments of calm when hunting or fishing. Eric was a gentle soul who would hold Bob’s hands even when he was in his 20’s. Eric started his career in the culinary arts and then, like Bob, became a prison corrections officer.
Despite the inhumanity he saw around him, Eric would not speak disdainfully of inmates, but, instead, recognized their human dignity. Eric accomplished much in his short time on earth — he saved three lives before he died — but missed out on even more. It pains the Autobees to consider the many milestones in Eric’s life that might have occurred were he still alive, including marriage, children, and career advancement.
The crime affected the Autobees not just because of their beloved son’s loss, but also because of who they became after this loss. After Eric’s death, their warm feelings of love that Eric always nurtured quickly turned into cold feelings of vengeance and violence. Originally, the Autobees fervently supported the prosecution’s efforts to seek absolute retribution. Over time, however, and with reflection, they realized that Eric would not have wanted this for himself or for them; Eric would not have wanted someone killed in his name, nor would he have wanted his family to live in the darkness of hatred. The Autobees know this because they know how Eric lived: by loving life, saving lives, and extending mercy to the merciless.
The effect of the crime on the Autobees cannot be separated from this ongoing death penalty prosecution. Bob and his family have found healing in the forgiveness that they have extended to their son’s killer. However, the prosecution strives to forever undo this healing by seeking to avenge one killing with another, over the family’s pleas for mercy. For the Autobee family, a death sentence and the accompanying years of litigation, all supposedly done in their son’s name, would rob them of peace. For, in the eyes of society, their son’s name forever would be associated with cruelty and violence, rather than the human dignity and mercy he embodied in life.
Brauchler’s rejection of the Autobees position, as the survivors of their son’s murder, reflects not merely an argument about victim’s rights that fails the laugh test and offends more serious sensibilities about the role of victims in the process. Brauchler’s position co-opts the victims’ rights argument as a supplement to the prosecutorial role; victims exist solely to bolster the prosecution. If they don’t, they deserve neither rights nor to be heard.
Where are the victims’ rights advocates? Andrew Cohen throws down the gauntlet, and Kate Lowenstein, the program director of the group Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights, and Kristy Dyroff, of the National Organization for Victim Assistance, defend the rights of victims to express their views admirably and without hypocrisy.
What of the loudest and most strident victims’ rights advocates, like Paul Cassell?
As Cohen concludes:
It’s not the Autobees who are the outliers here. It’s the prosecutor. He can hardly purport to serve as the “conscience of the community,” or claim he is following clear Colorado law by ignoring the wishes of the one family in the state that has earned the right to speak at the Montour trial. Victims’ rights mean rights for all victims and not just those who toe the government’s line.
I am not, and never have been, a fan of victim impact statements based on the position that criminal law vindicates societal goals, not individual feelings. But if victims get to speak, they get to speak whether they back up the prosecution’s quest for death or plea for the life of the murderer. Brauchler’s position is offensive, outrageous and morally bankrupt. Worse, it’s the position of a person in whom society reposes prosecutorial discretion.
See also Gideon’s view here, as I’m very late to this party.