After more than a decade of legal twists and turns, District Attorney George Brauchler says his office just wasn't given long enough to prepare.
In a Thursday afternoon hearing, convicted killer Edward Montour agreed to give up his insanity defense and plead guilty to the 2002 murder of prison guard Eric Autobee. In exchange, prosecutors dropped their pursuit of the death penalty, accepting a sentence of life in prison without possibility of parole.
What forced the deal, says Brauchler, was the revelation in January that defense attorneys had new evidence about the crime that originally sent Montour to prison: the 1997 killing of his infant daughter. New defense witnesses were prepared to testify that the baby had an undiagnosed bone disease and died not from a beating but from an accidental fall.
Based on their arguments, a coroner last month changed the cause of death in the case from "homicide" to "undetermined."
Prosecutors said they needed more time to develop counter arguments but the judge denied their request.
"That was a mountain too tall to climb," said Braucher after the plea hearing. "But we tried. This team really killed itself trying to find the experts to rebut this."
Without enough time to prepare, Brauchler says he was concerned the jury would start to doubt Montour's original conviction and that sympathy would prevent them from agreeing to the death penalty. But despite offering the plea deal, Brauchler still believes death would have been the proper punishment in this case.
"If we're going to keep asking people to put on prison guard uniforms and go to prison, we've got to back them up when they're injured or killed by inmates and say 'we're going to seek a punishment greater than just a change of scenery,'" Brauchler said, refering to Montour's transfer to solitary confinement in a maximum security prison.
Thursday was the second time Montour pled guilty in this case. He originally entered a guilty plea in 2003 and was sentenced to death by a judge. But the Colorado Supreme Court overturned that verdict, ruling that only juries can impose the death penalty. In the retrial that began this week Montour had claimed he was not guilty by reason of insanity.
Defense attorney David Lane says that even with the death penalty off the table his client is being punished for Autobee's killing.
"He will be in solitary confinement until he dies," Lane said. "That is a horrific punishment."
The victim's father, Bob Autobee, says he’s forgiven Montour for his son’s murder and has long fought for prosecutors to stop pursuing the death penalty.
"I’m just glad that they did come to their senses and me and my family are excited and hopefully the rest of the state will be excited," Autobee said on Thursday.
Autobee says he plans to continue working as an advocate for the end of capital punishment in Colorado and nationally.