High court rejects Aurora death row inmate’s complaint over judge’s firing


AURORA | Lawyers for an Aurora man sentenced to death for killing a murder witness a decade ago say court officials broke the law when they fired a judge overseeing the man’s appeal.

Sir Mario OwensBut the state’s highest court rejected the request Wednesday, July 6, just a few days after the petition was filed.

Lawyers for Sir Mario Owens had said state court officials — including the state court administrator and chief justice of the Colorado Supreme Court — acted in an “arbitrary and unlawful” way when they fired Judge Gerald Rafferty.

Rafferty, who oversaw Owens’ criminal trial in 2008, was on the verge of ruling on Owens’ post-conviction appeal when he was let go, the petition said.

The petition said Owens’ lawyers have not seen Rafferty’s order.

“These arbitrary actions breed suspicion, raise doubts about the fairness of the judicial process in this case, threaten the imperative need for independent judges, and call into question the reputation and integrity of Colorado’s judicial branch,” the petition said.

Owens was convicted and sentenced to death for killing Javad Marshall-Fields and Vivian Wolfe in 2005. Marshall-Fields was set to testify against Owens’ friend, Robert Ray, in a murder case when he was killed. Both Owens and Ray were sentenced to death for their roles in the killings.

District Attorney George Brauchler, whose office is involved with the post-conviction hearings for Owens, was happy with the Supreme Court’s decision to deny the Rule 21 petition.

“We are pleased with the Supreme Court’s rejection of the defense’s petition, which would have resulted in yet another unnecessary delay in providing finality to a death sentence that was imposed by a jury eight years ago,” said District Attorney George Brauchler in a prepared statement.

In their post-conviction appeal — which Rafferty was expected to rule on soon when he was fired — Owens’ lawyers argue his trial lawyers were ineffective and say prosecutors didn’t tell the jury about some deals they made with witnesses, including giving one witness a car.

State court officials announced Rafferty’s firing in April. Rafferty had retired from the bench in January but continued working on the Owens case on a contract basis. In a statement in April, the State Court Administrator’s Office said Rafferty had practiced law during that time with the firm Collins & Coldwell, LLC., which violated his contract in the Owens case.

In the petition, Owens’ lawyers say they aren’t sure who ultimately made the decision to fire Rafferty or details about why. The petition seeks those answers and ultimately to have Rafferty re-assigned to the case.

“To remove a sitting judge – in this case a judge who had presided over this enormous case for more than a decade and heard all of the mountains of evidence – at exactly the same moment that he was issuing his final order, which would largely decide Mr. Owens’ fate and whether he lives or dies, is literally unprecedented, not only in a Colorado case of this magnitude, but in the annals of law,” the petition said.

The case was subsequently handed to a Jefferson County judge. The petition said that judge will essentially start over from the beginning.

“Countless thousands of taxpayer dollars will be spent by all parties to do again what has already been done,” the petition said.

It wasn’t immediately clear Wednesday when new hearings in the case will be set.