Nardi’s ‘subpar’ defense in Aspen sex assault case should earn him new trial, lawyer says

Former Aspen bartender convicted in 2014 of sexual assault looking for new trial

Peter Nardi

Lawyers for a former Aspen bartender convicted of sexual assault in 2014 bungled his case so badly, he deserves a new trial.

That’s according to Peter Nardi’s new attorney, who said Wednesday at the beginning of a three-day hearing that Nardi’s trial lawyers’ professional actions constituted ineffective assistance of counsel and led to his serving a nine years to life prison sentence.

“We believe (one of Nardi’s attorneys) was beginning to suffer from Alzheimer’s,” said Nancy Holton, Nardi’s Lafayette-based lawyer. “(The other) believes she provided ineffective assistance of counsel for Mr. Nardi.”

But Deputy District Attorney Don Nottingham said much of what Holton claimed was not supported by the trial record, while some of it was directly contradicted by it. In fact, Nardi’s lawyers performed well after Nardi “boxed” them into a “he said-she said” defense that was not supported by the facts of the case.

“They did the best job they could, and they did a good job,” Nottingham said. “All the evidence supported (the victim’s) story, not his. All the evidence contradicted what he said.”

The allegations behind Nardi’s conviction centered on a night in April 2013 at his former girlfriend’s apartment during which she said he abused, beat and sexually assaulted her. A Pitkin County jury convicted him a year later of felony sexual assault, felony attempted second-degree sexual assault, felony violation of bail bonds conditions, two counts of misdemeanor assault and misdemeanor false imprisonment.

Former Pitkin County District Judge Gail Nichols sentenced Nardi to 15 years to life in prison in July 2014.

Current Pitkin County District Judge Chris Seldin reduced that sentence to nine years to life in August 2018 after the Colorado Court of Appeals said Nichols erred in sentencing Nardi.

On Wednesday, Holton said that after Nardi was initially charged in the case, he applied to the Colorado Public Defender’s Office, but was rejected because he had a job at the time and was not “indigent” as required by the office. After coming to court without a lawyer, Nichols told him he needed to hire an attorney and gave him a list of “low-pay attorneys,” though he was not successful until he spoke with lawyer John Van Ness of Carbondale.

Van Ness agreed to take Nardi’s case for free with the understanding that Van Ness would file a civil lawsuit against the victim in the case after Nardi was acquitted, and take 70%-to-80% of the revenue from an expected civil judgment, Holton said. Such an arrangement is unethical and constitutes ineffective assistance of counsel, she said.

In addition, Van Ness should have hired an investigator and an expert in DNA evidence for the case, but did not, Holton said. He did talk to witnesses in the case, but those interviews were “extremely limited, disorganized and problematic.”

Finally, Van Ness, who died of Alzhiemer’s in 2019, and co-counsel Colleen Scissors of Basalt did not properly file motions in the case, she said.

“(Van Ness’) performance during trial was subpar,” Holton said.

Nottingham said the defense lawyers clearly did some investigation on the case because they knew things during questioning of witnesses during trial that prosecutors did not. The DNA evidence was properly tested and there’s evidence in the trial record that the defense team properly filed motions, he said.

Essentially, Nardi lost the case early on for his lawyers by talking to local newspapers and others and insisting he was innocent, that the victim attacked him and that he wouldn’t take a plea, Nottingham said. That meant, the only choice for the defense boiled down to the he said, she said defense, and the evidence supported the victim’s story.

“He does not deserve a new trial,” Nottingham said.

Nardi has served eight years in prison and cannot be released until he admits to the sexual assault and completes an intense sex-offender rehabilitation program. His former public defender said Nardi, who has maintained his innocence, will have to stay in prison for life or lie about his true feelings, though completing the treatment program requires passing a lie detector test.

Nardi’s hearing is scheduled to run through Friday.


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