We are joined by Bob Autobee, a Colorado resident who is opposing the death penalty for the prisoner who killed his son Eric, a prison guard, in 2002. During the original trial, Autobee supported a death sentence for Edward Montour. But the Colorado Supreme Court threw out Montour’s sentence in 2007 because it was imposed by a judge, not a jury as is required. A decade later, Autobee has now changed his mind. In the new murder trial that begins today, he wants to make a victim’s statement to the jury asking them not to impose the death penalty — but the judge in the case has barred him from doing so. Autobee describes why he opposes the death penalty in this case, and why he wants to see it abolished overall. “You’ve got to be willing to heal, and you’ve got to let the hate go,” Autobee says. “To me the death penalty is a hate crime, a crime against humanity.” We are also joined by Democracy Now! producer and criminal justice correspondent Renée Feltz, who notes that 80 percent of Colorado voters actually passed a constitutional amendment in 1992 that enshrines the rights of victims to make a statement in cases like Autobee’s.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: We turn now to Colorado, where a trial set to begin today has drawn attention to the state’s ongoing debate about its use of the death penalty. The case involves a prison inmate named Edward Montour, who is accused of beating a prison guard named Eric Autobee to death in 2002. Montour pled guilty to the murder and was convicted. But the state’s Supreme Court threw out his death sentence in 2007 because it was imposed by a judge, and not a jury, as is required. Now the case is back in court. This time the killer is pleading not guilty by reason of insanity, and the victim’s father, who wanted to seek the “ultimate punishment” in the original trial, has had a change of heart.
AMY GOODMAN: During a meeting with prosecutors, Bob Autobee asked them to spare the life of his son’s killer, but to no avail. In a surprising move, they have not only decided to pursue another death sentence, they’ve also succeeded in blocking Autobee from making a victim’s statement to the jury that expresses his request for a life sentence. Last week, the judge in the case ruled, quote, “The Autobees may testify about the emotional impact of a death sentence or a life sentence … However, the Autobees will not be allowed to testify about what sentence the jury should impose.”
For more, we turn to Bob Autobee. He’s joining us from Denver, just before he goes to the trial today. We’re also joined by Democracy Now! producer and criminal justice correspondent, Renée Feltz.
Bob Autobee, welcome to Democracy Now! How is it—
BOB AUTOBEE: Thank you. Good morning.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain how, in your victim’s statement, you’re not allowed to say what you want to say?
BOB AUTOBEE: Well, there’s been concern from the beginning when I started picketing that I could taint the jury. But this trial has already been tainted numerous times. And I feel I have as much right to speak as the DA or the defense.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, let’s go to part of the video recording from when you met with your son’s killer, Edward Montour, this past December, along with a moderator who’s trained in the method of restorative justice. This clip begins with Edward Montour apologizing to you.
EDWARD MONTOUR: One thing I would like to say, before we go further, is that I am deeply, deeply sorry for the pain I caused you and your family for killing your son. I had no right. I had no right. And I am very humbled by you forgiving me. And I want to thank you for that, because you didn’t have to. And I’m not sure if I would have the courage to do what you’re doing. You’re a good man. And I want to thank you for this opportunity.
BOB AUTOBEE: I appreciate that. I wasn’t always a good man. You know, this isn’t just about me and you, because Eric’s right here. My son’s over there. My wife is at home. She said she couldn’t—she couldn’t be in the same room with you. But she forgives you. My son has forgiven you. I have forgiven you. And so—and I’m sure Eric has forgiven you. I see an opportunity here, an opportunity to make something positive out of my son’s death. And you’re a part of it. We’re all a part of that. When your trial starts in January, I told him, “I’ll be at the courthouse, but I’ll be outside picketing, because I don’t believe it’s justice.” The death penalty would not bring me any satisfaction.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: That was Bob Autobee speaking to his son’s killer, Edward Montour. Bob Autobee, can you talk about your response to this and then also explain what accounted for your change of heart on the question of the death penalty?
BOB AUTOBEE: Well, I’ve thought of nothing more for 11-and-a-half years. And once I came back to my faith and started reading my Bible, I realized that was the best course to take. I’m very happy with that decision, and my life has improved immensely since that meeting.
AMY GOODMAN: What was it like to meet with your son’s killer? Eric, your son, a prison guard. You met with him, as well as your other son, Eric’s brother.
BOB AUTOBEE: Well, my younger son wasn’t going to meet Edward. He didn’t feel he was ready for it. But as the meeting went on, my son stood up. He said, “I feel God’s presence in this room, and I want to be a part of it.” So then he came to the table. And that really made me happy, because the mercy and the love is starting to spread. And if it starts with just one or two, it’ll grow.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: I want to bring Renée Feltz into the conversation, a Democracy Now! producer. Renée Feltz, can you talk about what Bob’s rights are to make a victim’s statement and Colorado’s constitutional amendment for victim rights and how this compares to other states?
RENÉE FELTZ: Well, it’s just incredible if you think about Bob’s situation. Bob has his own lawyer to bring his voice into the courtroom. Usually in cases like this, it’s the prosecution working with the victim’s family who want to seek justice, and they’re on the same page. So this is very unusual. In order to get his voice heard in this trial, he had to hire an outside lawyer.
That lawyer presented an argument to the judge that he should be allowed to say to the jury, “I oppose the death sentence for this man who killed my son.” The judge recently said, “In fact, you cannot do that.” And the judge gave some reasons that relied on another case out of Oklahoma. And what’s really—and I can talk more about that, but what’s really interesting about Colorado’s law is that they, in 1992, voted—80 percent of voters—to amend their constitution to let victims, like Bob, say their piece in court in a victim’s statement. In fact, they define “victims” as “any natural person against whom [any] crime has been perpetrated or attempted,” or, if the person is dead, then their lawful representative, like Bob. And this law says—and I can read from it here—that the victim can “inform the district attorney and the court, in writing, by a victim impact statement, [and] by an oral statement, of the harm that the victim has sustained as a result of the crime, with the determination of whether the victim makes written input or oral input, or both, to be made at the [sole] discretion of the victim.” So, here you have a judge saying, in fact, that he’s not going to be allowed to testify. It’s very unusual.
Just to point out how this compares to some other laws around the country, in New Hampshire, it’s quite interesting. In 2009, they passed a law there called the Crime Victims Equality Act. And that says that even if a crime victim, such as Bob, opposes the death sentence, the prosecutors are not allowed to attempt to ban them from saying their piece to the jury. Part of the reason this is interesting is because a jury is going to make the decision about what the ultimate punishment should be in this case, and they’re not going to be able to hear from Bob directly that he doesn’t want that punishment to be death.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Renée, could you also explain—Edward Montour pled guilty in the original trial. Why was that conviction thrown out?
RENÉE FELTZ: You know, part of the reason this case has been hard to cover for reporters is because it’s complicated. But in the original trial, Bob threw out his court-appointed attorney, said, “I want to represent myself”—not Bob, actually; I should say Edward Montour, the killer. And he decided that he would represent himself, even though he was off his medication for being bipolar and having psychosis symptoms. Ultimately, he also said, “I just want the judge to make a decision.” Well, it turns out that that’s constitutionally invalid. A judge cannot issue a death penalty; it has to be a jury. So that was thrown out, and that’s how we got back to square one.
Very quickly, I would just note that it’s interesting we noted in the introduction that he was already in prison when he killed Bob’s son. Why was he there? It’s because he was accused of killing his own daughter when she was just months old. And so, he was sent, back in the '90s, to prison for this conviction as a so-called baby killer. That's a hard label to wear in prison. And it turns out that now Edward Montour’s current lawyers say that, in fact, that death may have actually been an accident. And it’s incredible, but the coroner’s office has actually changed the cause of death in that death to undetermined, instead of a homicide. So the very crime that landed Edward Montour in prison may have in fact not have been a crime at all.
AMY GOODMAN: Bob Autobee, do you plan to sit in on this trial?
BOB AUTOBEE: Bits and pieces, not the whole trial. I tried that once, and it just drove me to depression and anxiety. And at that time, I didn’t see justice being served. So, if things turn around now, then I may make an appearance.
AMY GOODMAN: You were a corrections officer yourself, and your son, of course, Eric, was a prison guard. That’s where Edward Montour killed him.
BOB AUTOBEE: That’s correct.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And you said this experience has made you very critical of the prison system and the penal system, in general. Could you talk about what specific changes you’ve been advocating in the Colorado prison system?
BOB AUTOBEE: Well, we’ve asked—we suggested focus groups from the staff, because the management has refused to listen to the people that are in the trenches, and so a lot of things get by that management doesn’t know anything about. We’d also—we suggested different colored jumpsuits for the inmates, so violent offenders could be recognized immediately, because right now in Colorado we have violent and maximum-security inmates in medium-security facilities where they have no business. And unless you’ve read every jacket of every inmate, you don’t know what they’re in there for. So, I think the different colored uniforms would help. We’ve even suggested dogs to go on patrol with the officers, rather than leaving them by themselves. There’s a lot of things that could be done, but the administration refuses to listen.
AMY GOODMAN: Renée?
RENÉE FELTZ: I wanted to suggest that Bob describe what he did in January, which was very interesting. He went to protest against the death penalty in this case outside of the courtroom, when he wasn’t quite sure if he would be allowed to make a statement inside. And, Bob, could you talk about what—who joined you? There were other victims of murder, families, that were with you for that protest, is that right? Can you talk about what you did and who joined you?
BOB AUTOBEE: That’s correct. When I met with Brauchler at my home, I told him that if he pursued the death penalty, that I would fight it, and I would picket—
RENÉE FELTZ: And that’s the prosecutor in the case.
BOB AUTOBEE: Yes. And I’ve been picketing. And then Tim Ricard, the husband of Mary Ricard, the second officer that was killed in Colorado recently, he’s also anti-death penalty, and we’ve been working together. We had a survivor from one of the victims of Nathan Dunlap, was also involved. And I met with the mother of that young lady, and we had a wonderful talk, and hope I was able to help her understand, you know, you’ve got to be willing to heal, and you’ve got to let the hate go. I mean, to me, the death penalty is a hate crime, and it’s a crime against humanity. And once you come to this side and see it for what it really is, then you’ll know you’re doing the right thing.
AMY GOODMAN: Bob Autobee, we want to thank you for being with us. Bob Autobee is speaking out against the death penalty for the prisoner who killed his son Eric, a prison guard. And, Renée Feltz, thanks so much for joining us.