Last Thursday, the Colorado Court of Appeals affirmed the 2010 ruling of a trial court judge who granted a defense Motion for New Trial in the first-degree murder case of David Beuno after it was revealed that prosecutors had withheld exculpatory information in the prison murder case.
Beuno was convicted of stabbing a fellow inmate, Jeffrey Heird, to death at the Limon Correctional Facility (LCF) in 2004. His defense at trial was that the state failed to investigated alternate suspects, including white supremacists who may have been responsible for Heird’s death as well as another death at the prison soon after.
Deputy District Attorney Robert Watson withheld three pieces of evidence in the trial that would have supported Beuno’s theory.
1. A letter discovered by a nurse at the prison just half an hour after Heird’s body was found, in which the author wrote:
“Let it be known to all, The Aryan Nation along with the neo nazi skinheads hereby decree that all men of the white race who refuse to accept their proud race will hereby be exterminated. We hereby select two to begin the extermination process M. Nowlin and A. “Cueball” Latner. To begin with there are three to choose from LU-1 Sorenson has out lived his worth LU-2 “Santa Clause” Parrish is worthless LU 6 Hollenbeck need to be taught a lesson The list continues but for now these are to be done soon. [Illegible signature] [Backward swastika] ABN”.
2. An employee incident report written by the nurse discussing the letter.
3. A report written by Lieutenant Timothy Smelser, a gang intelligence officer at LCF, about a second death at LCF in which an inmate suffered a heart attack following a blunt force trauma to his chest. The report suggested Heird’s death was likely connected to this second incident.
District Attorney Carol Chambers’ office did not disclose this evidence to Beuno’s defense counsel until fifteen months after the trial, when a new assistant district attorney working on the case decided to turn it over in an “abundance of caution”. When Beuno’s defense team filed a Motion for New Trial arguing that this information should have been disclosed before trial, the judge agreed with the defendant and vacated Beuno’s conviction, finding:
“The defense was never able to fully develop this theory of defense for [defendant] because the Prosecutors failed to timely disclose these relevant and possibly exculpatory documents and reports…
It is the opinion and finding of the Trial Court that the failure by the Prosecution to provide this discovery when it was in the District Attorney’s possession and thought to have relevance to the Heird investigation at the outset is a violation requiring a severe sanction.”
In its November 21 ruling, the Colorado Court of Appeals upheld the judge’s decision, concluding, “the trial court did not abuse its discretion in granting defendant a new trial.”
Though the trial court judge suggested that Watson’s withholding of exculpatory evidence required “a severe sanction”, we are not aware that any such action has been imposed against Watson or his former boss, District Attorney Chambers.
“Chambers’ office was criticized for spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in the prosecution of Bueno and co-defendant Alejandro Perez, who was acquitted by a jury in 2011.”
The state sought the death penalty against Bueno but was unsuccessful when the jury returned a life sentence in the case.