Guest commentary: Nancy Pfister murder: withholding Judgment
Doug Allen’s earnest observations about the murder of local resident Nancy Pfister and the events that have followed the discovery of her body may, as he believes, reflect a common reaction in the valley (Aspen Daily News, March 21). Unfortunately, Allen misunderstands both the process of the criminal justice system and the appropriate roles of law enforcement, prosecutors and defense counsel in the fair application of that system.
Five days after the 911 call that summoned sheriff’s deputies to Pfister’s home, Dr. William Styler, a widely known and respected Denver anesthesiologist, and his wife Nancy, an equally well-known and prominent botanist, were arrested. I’d spent some time with them that week and cannot imagine less likely killers.
The next morning their jail photographs were splayed across local and national newspapers as well as broadcast outlets. The accompanying stories quickly attributed the crime to a dispute over rent. By the end of the first week, national media representatives had swarmed Aspen looking for anyone who would talk to them, about anything and anybody. It wasn’t necessary that you have any real information To be interviewed. Rumor, apocryphal reminiscences and speculation were welcome.
On the morning after the Stylers were arrested, they appeared in Pitkin County District Court accompanied by hastily appointed attorneys begging for some information about the charges. But by the end of that first appearance, the only information the attorneys learned was that their clients would be held without bond while the district attorney decided if and how to charge them.
While traveling the short distance from the jail to the rear entrance of the courthouse and back, the media was given unrestrained access for photographs of the orange-draped couple. The photos and video prominently were featured around the country that evening and the next morning. The only official communication, however, was that Pfister was a loved member of the community and that her dog was being well cared for. No further details were available to the public, the media or the defense attorneys.
On the evening of the Thursday following the arrests, I was on a flight from Denver to Aspen, and I boarded with two women who were discussing the crime and the arrests. One announced to the other what she had “heard” about the discovery of the victim, in detail. At the time, I was not involved in the case and had no real information beyond what I’d read in the local papers. I listened to the discussion and filed it with the other rumors I’d heard. By the end of the next day, however, I was involved in the case, and we were allowed to read the affidavit for the arrest warrant. To my surprise, the women I’d overheard were remarkably prescient about the details of the murder, details which at that time only law enforcement and the prosecutors should have known.
At a subsequent hearing, the Stylers again appeared in district court and their attorneys addressed several issues, including the apparent leaking of information. No one on any side of the case disagreed with the defense’s request to Judge Gail Nichols to remind everyone involved that the canons of ethics for attorneys, which apply equally to their agents, govern the premature dissemination of information and she properly did so.
Sheriff Joe DiSalvo announced that afternoon that his office would have no further statements about the investigation.
It is this request, and the supporting colloquy had in the courtroom, that Mr. Allen decries, apparently without any understanding of or appreciation for the right of defendants to be presumed innocent.
I have known DiSalvo for many years, as a friend as well as a diligent and fair advocate for the rule of law. No one representing the Stylers has suggested anything shady about his handling of this case. No one has attempted to soil his reputation. No one has accused him of unethical or illegal behavior. And no one ought to bite on Allen’s invitation to restructure the criminal justice process discussion.
The bate Allen offers is constructed of inflammatory asides about alleged vagaries which deprive the public of fodder for further rumor, cocktail party speculation and unsupported prediction. Though he bemoans the alleged uncertainty of the discovery process, the evidentiary evolution of every criminal prosecution carefully is provided for by statute. It is a process that arguably does the best job of any system in the world of protecting both the interests of the public as well as those of the accused. Though interested parties may differ and sometimes argue over its nuances, it nearly always achieves ultimate justice.
It is common practice during jury selection in criminal trials for attorneys to ask prospective jurors how they would vote on a verdict form at that moment, before seeing any evidence or hearing any testimony against the defendant, knowing only that the “People of the State” have charged the person with a crime. The correct answer, of course, is “not guilty.” Accusations are not evidence. It is another way of asking if the jurors understand and believe in the fundamental proposition of the presumption of innocence. It is also a common practice in high-profile cases which have been bombarded by the media to ask the jury pool if they can set aside and disregard anything they have read or heard and consider only what the advocates present. Jurors almost always assure the court that they can and will, but the more repetitious and provocative the exposure of the case has been, the less reassuring the affirmation feels.
Presumably, Allen includes himself in the “we” who “take umbrage at the accusation that we are so stupid we’d form opinions with absolutely no facts.” Yet, while the afterword to the column notes that he is following the case closely, the writer opines without knowing any facts that a motion filed on behalf of Nancy Styler seeking specific and certain electronic communications of DiSalvo is a misdirection tactic intended to trick the public into turning against the sheriff. As Nichols reminded both sides at the hearings, the discovery process — the release of evidence and witness statements to the defense — will proceed according to law in an orderly fashion. Nevertheless, Allen already has drawn and advocates his own conclusions about defense strategy. To save him inevitable embarrassment on this point, I would urge him to wait a bit longer before publishing additional commentary on defense motions and tactics.
At some point, Allen likely will have access to the information he covets. Hopefully, he will continue to follow all of the developments closely, remembering that the information released by the prosecutors are allegations and that arguments by the defense are intended to ensure the integrity of the process.
Neither the Sheriff’s Office nor the District Attorney’s Office is on trial in the investigation of Pfister’s murder. But three presumably innocent people are on trial in the marketplace of public opinion and may someday be in a court of law. Hopefully, for the sake of the system, the verdict in both forums will be based on facts, not on pundits’ exhortations. It is the responsibility of law enforcement and prosecutors to perform their jobs with impartiality and fairness and with ultimate dedication to the truth. It is the charge faced by the defense to assure they perform their tasks well. Nichols will do her job of making sure both sides follow the law. Hopefully, Mr. Drew and the public will do their job of withholding judgment until all of the facts are known.
David Olmsted is an Aspen-based private investigator.
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