DENVER (AP) – An inmate accused in the 2002 slaying of a prison worker will be placed on trial and prosecutors will seek the death penalty after a judge Tuesday allowed the suspect to withdraw his guilty plea.
Edward Montour Jr., already serving a life sentence in the 1997 death of his 11-month-old daughter, is accused of killing Eric Autobee, 23, by striking him in the head with a heavy kitchen ladle at Limon Correctional Facility. Montour represented himself in the case and in January 2003, barely three months after the slaying, pleaded guilty to first-degree murder.
He told his advisory attorneys that he wanted to die by execution, according to court documents.
The case has lingered in court for more than 10 years following a judge’s imposition of the death penalty, which was later thrown out by the Colorado Supreme Court. The court ruled in 2007 that only a jury, not a judge, can hand down death sentences.
While prosecutors have been seeking a penalty phase trial so a jury can impose the death penalty, Montour’s defense attorneys have been trying to strike a deal that would spare Montour’s life.
An offer to have Montour plead guilty and serve a life sentence in solitary confinement was rejected by prosecutors, attorney David Lane said, and Douglas County District Judge Richard B. Caschette on Tuesday allowed Montour to withdraw his guilty plea, setting the stage for a new trial. Caschette said in his ruling that he could not allow Montour’s “calculated plan of state-assisted suicide.”
“In giving up a first-degree murder conviction, all for the sake of attempting to get a death penalty, all things are possible now in this case including a verdict of not guilty after trial,” Lane said in a statement.
Many prosecutors who support the death penalty have long argued that it remains the sole deterrent against inmates who are already serving life sentences from killing prison guards. District Attorney George Brauchler, who earlier this month announced that he would seek the death penalty for Aurora theater shooting suspect James Holmes, said the death penalty in this case sends the message that killing prison guards will not be tolerated.
“When a man already serving a life sentence kills a prison guard, a ‘new’ life sentence defies justice, common sense, and makes the taking of Eric Autobee’s life a ‘freebie,’” Brauchler said in a statement.
Autobee’s family opposes the death penalty, but Brauchler said he’s taking prison workers’ safety into consideration.
The day before he was fatally shot while answering his front door, Colorado Department of Corrections Executive Director Tom Clements testified at the Legislature on behalf of improved prison worker safety. Clements’ March 19 slaying remains unsolved.
Former inmate and white supremacist prison gang member Evan Ebel had the gun used in Clements’ slaying when he died in a shootout with Texas authorities. Authorities have not said what role they believe Ebel played in Clements’ slaying or whether others were involved.
An associate of Ebel’s is in custody while another remains at large. El Paso County sheriff’s officials say both are persons of interest in Clements’ slaying.
Until Autobee’s death in 2002, no corrections officer had been killed since 1929. Since Autobee’s slaying, Sgt. Mary Ricard, 55, was killed last September while breakfast was being prepared for inmates at the Arkansas Valley Correctional Facility, and then Clements died at his home in Monument.
- By P. Solomon Banda, AP Writer
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