Auman conviction tossed
Break out the Chivas Regal: Hunter S. Thompson won one final battle yesterday.In the years before his death last month, the author used his national pulpit to rage against what he called a travesty of justice: the conviction and life sentence without parole of Lisl Auman for the murder of a Denver police officer in 1997. Monday morning, the Colorado Supreme Court agreed with him, throwing out Auman’s sentence and ordering a new trial.The 30-year-old was convicted of murdering Officer Bruce VanderJagt, 47, even though she was handcuffed in the back of a police car when the officer was shot. Colorado law allows homicide charges to be filed against an accomplice even if someone else killed the victim. The court upheld that statute yesterday.But in their 4-1 ruling, the justices found that the jury was given improper instructions relating to a burglary charge. The burglary conviction allowed the jury to also convict Auman of felony murder, which carries a prison sentence of life without the possibility of parole.”This is the Worst & most Reprehensible miscarriage of ‘Justice’ I’ve ever encountered,” wrote Thompson on espn.com. “She is the only person ever convicted in the United States for Felony Murder while in police custody when the crime happened.”
Auman was with Mattaheus Jaehnig and a few others when they went to Auman’s former apartment to get some of her property. They allegedly broke into another room and stole items from a roommate. A passer-by called police, who chased Auman and Jaehnig. Auman was caught, handcuffed and placed in a police car. Jaehnig shot Officer Bruce VanderJagt, 47, who later died; the suspect then committed suicide.Prosecutors argued that Auman was guilty of felony murder because the crime stemmed from the burglary.In 2001, Thompson, the late singer/songwriter Warren Zevon and Pitkin County Sheriff Bob Braudis headlined a rally for Auman on the steps of the state Capitol in Denver.”It is no small trick to get a ‘Convicted cop-killer’ out of prison – but it will be a little easier in this case, because Lisl no more killed a cop than I did,” Thompson wrote on espn.com. “She was handcuffed in the backseat of a Denver Police car when the cop was murdered in cold blood by a vicious skinhead who then shot himself in the head & left the D.A. with nobody to punish for the murder – except Lisl.”Gerry Goldstein, Thompson’s longtime friend and lawyer, also spoke at the rally. Goldstein, past president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said Thompson helped the group become involved in the case.
The association filed several amicus, or friends of the court, briefs with the state Supreme Court, Goldstein said.”The jury never was given an opportunity to decide whether or not Lisl intended to burglarize this young man’s apartment,” he said. “If there’s no burglary, there’s no felony murder.”What the court decided was that there was insufficient proof to show that she committed a burglary, much less had any intention to engage in a murder of a police officer. And that’s the bottom line.”Goldstein said the importance of Thompson’s involvement in the case cannot be underestimated.”Hunter’s outspoken stance in Denver and in the media on Lisl’s behalf was the turning point in her case,” he said. “It was his insistence that brought the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers into the case, and it was his dogged insistence that Lisl’s plight be rectified that caught the attention of the court, not just the media.”
Prosecutors said Auman would remain in custody without bail under a judge’s order issued before her trial. Her lawyers were debating how to proceed.Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey said prosecutors may ask the court to reconsider before deciding their next move. He told The Associated Press he was disappointed that Auman’s conviction and sentence was overturned but relieved that the felony murder law was upheld.Morrissey said VanderJagt’s widow, Anna Marie VanderJagt, was shocked and upset by the ruling but had known it was a possibility. “She felt it’s going back to square one,” he said.Goldstein said Thompson’s publicizing of the case was pivotal. “I think public opinion has an impact upon the criminal justice system. [Issues] like Lisl’s plight … are often swept under the carpet by courts and legislatures that deal with criminal sanctions,” he said. “What Hunter did was bring to the forefront the need for reform. I think Lisl’s case is one step in that direction. But what Hunter recognized is that the statutes can be used in ways that create anomalous and unjust results.”Chad Abraham’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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