How many others wrongly convicted?
November 23, 2006
The scene was somewhat quieter last weekend for the world premier of the third and supposedly final installment of local filmmaker Wayne Ewing’s Hunter S. Thompson trilogy, entitled “Free Lisl – Fear and Loathing in Denver.”The upstairs assembly hall at the Denver Press Club was an appropriate place for showing films centered around a man who, before he killed himself a year and a half ago, redefined aspects of journalism in America. But the room was not as full as it had been at earlier screenings of Ewing’s work. The showing of the prior film, “When I Die,” about the making of the “cannon” that shot Thompson’s ashes skyward at his Owl Farm compound in Woody Creek, drew an standing-room-only crowd, for instance.This time, though, it was a more intimate gathering, many of the attendees either family, friends or supporters of the film’s subject, Lisl Auman.That may have been because the topic of the film, Auman’s unjust treatment at the hands of then-Denver District Attorney Bill Ritter (now the governor of Colorado) and the Denver law enforcement establishment, didn’t have quite the sociopolitical cachet as a film about the spectacular blast at Owl Farm.Be that as it may, the film about Auman and her ordeal is an important one, illuminating troubling truths about everything from the vindictive nature of cops and prosecutors to the willingness of the news media to help railroad a woman into a prison cell for life for no good reason. It also says a lot about how celebrity can be an effective tool in overturning injustice, which in itself is as troubling as anything else in this tale of terror and vindication.For those unfamiliar with the facts, in 1997 Auman enlisted a friend to help retrieve her belongings from the home of a former boyfriend. The friend in turn arranged for help from members of a dubious organization known as the Denver Skins. The skinheads, despite Auman’s misgivings about the entire enterprise, drove Auman and her friend to the home some 30 miles southwest of Denver and then engineered the burglary of the home, using the opportunity to help themselves to some of the home’s contents.Someone called the cops, they showed up and a high-speed chase led to a south Denver apartment complex where Auman surrendered to the growing horde of armed cops and was placed, in handcuffs, in the back seat of a squad car. Thus trussed up and held, she answered the cops’ questions about the man she’d been riding with during the chase, a skinhead she barely knew named Matthaus Jaehnig, who was at that point engaged in a shootout with police. Jaehnig ultimately shot and killed Officer Bruce Vanderjagt and then either killed himself or was killed by police firepower, leaving the cops with only Auman to blame.With the help of friendly reporters, the cops then embarked on a smear campaign, labeling Auman as Jaehnig’s “girlfriend” and in a story that changed more than once, accusing her of handing Jaehnig the gun that killed the officer.A combination of flawed prosecutorial conduct and community hysteria left Auman convicted of an arcane crime called “felony murder,” which holds that anyone involved in a felony that leads to a killing can, themselves, be convicted of that murder even if they did not participate in the killing, know anything about it, or plan it in any way.Faced with a life sentence without the possibility of parole for something she did not do, Auman wrote a letter from her prison cell to Thompson after reading his seminal work, “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” The writer took up her cause, enlisted star power from his circle of friends in the legal and entertainment world, and in the end Auman was granted a new trial that prompted a plea bargain and a sentence to 20 years’ probation. She will be free of the legal system in 2017.The questions left hanging in the air at the end of all this are varied and fearful.Why would police change their stories to make Auman look like a drug-addled killer when they knew better? Could it be that, since the real killer was dead, they decided the only way to make themselves feel better would be to hang the rap on whomever was handy?Why would a jury, most of whom admitted they did not believe the story the cops had concocted, convict a hapless and helpless woman whose only “crime” was to seek to retrieve her own belongings from the house of a former boyfriend?Why would an entire platoon of reporters ignore everything from verifiable facts that flew in the face of the official version of events, to hints of darker intrigues on the part of the cops involved? Why would they sheepishly go along with the character assassination perpetrated by the prosecution and the police? (This particularly deplorable aspect of the affair was somewhat leavened by the fact that, in the wake of the conviction, some journalists looked a little deeper and, when the answers to their questions pointed to a horrific injustice, wrote about it.)One could argue that the entire episode is proof that the U.S. justice system works. After all, Auman is out of prison. So what if she unjustly spent more than seven years in prison? So what if she is living a severely proscribed life of austerity and fear, waiting for the day that a cop decides she has violated the terms of her probation and sends her back to a cell? That fear is real, so real that she could not even attend the screening of the film.But the lesson to be taken from all this, the central question to be asked, is this: How many similar miscarriages of justice are out there, in the dark and murky backwaters of society, that will never be brought to light because there is no one like Hunter Thompson to shine that light?Lisl Auman made some mistakes, to be sure, but she is not a killer. Her persecutors, in their vindictive rush to judgment, made their own mistakes, if they can be called that. Auman’s mistakes have cost her dearly, but the ledger is far out of balance here.John Colson can be reached at email@example.com