Tue. Oct 3rd, 2023


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Colorado Supreme Court: Murder suspects can’t be held without bail

6 min read

An Arapahoe County judge set a $100 million cash-only bail for a murder defendant Thursday as judges across the state begin grappling with last week’s Colorado Supreme Court ruling that found defendants charged with first-degree murder are now entitled to bail.

Before last week’s ruling, first-degree murder defendants could be held in jail without bail in Colorado because the crime was considered a capital offense. But because the state abolished the death penalty in 2020, the justices ruled that first-degree murder defendants charged since then have a right to bail.

First-degree murder is no longer a capital offense, the justices found in the June 20 ruling, and defendants in those murder cases must be given the chance to pay bail and be free while their cases are pending.

That’s led judges across metro Denver to issue sky-high bail amounts in the last 10 days. A man accused of killing an Arvada police officer had a $15 million cash-only bail set Thursday. The Aurora dentist accused of poisoning his wife to death had his bail set at $10 million — also cash-only — on Wednesday, while the three teenagers accused of killing a woman by throwing a rock through her windshield had their bail set at $2 million last week. And a 19-year-old woman accused of stabbing her newborn to death when she was 17 had bail set at $2 million cash or surety Thursday, lower than the $5 million cash-only bail the prosecution sought.

The ruling thrust judges into uncharted territory as they wrestle with what amount of money best balances first-degree murder defendants’ constitutional rights with the threat to public safety and the rights of victims, 18th Judicial District Court Judge Theresa Slade said during a bond hearing in Arapahoe District Court on Thursday.

“Just like this holding that came from the Colorado Supreme Court this week is new to the folks in the courtroom, it is also new to the court,” she said. “And when that decision became a public decision, this is something that has fostered some significant discussion and also personally some thought about some of the folks who are in custody, what that means and what a judicial philosophy going forward would be.”

Slade presided over the bond hearing for David Lechner, 45, who is charged with first-degree murder in the death of his estranged wife, Tracy Lechner, 42. She was shot and killed at her home on March 30, a day before their divorce was to be finalized.

On Thursday, Tracy Lechner’s family members begged Slade for no less than a $10 billion bail in an agonizing and tearful hearing in which they said they believed David Lechner would kill them if he was released from jail while the criminal case is pending. The courtroom was packed with about 75 people there to support Tracy’s family.

“I wanted to speak today to quite literally beg for my life,” said Rachel Bloch, Tracy Lechner’s sister-in-law. “The matter of David Lechner potentially posting bail is truly life or death for me and my family. My home address was found written down in David’s car on the day of Tracy’s murder. I believe my family and I narrowly escaped death that day.”

She and other family members told the judge that David Lechner had a history of ignoring court orders in the couple’s divorce and child custody case — including a no-contact order that was in place when Tracy Lechner was killed — and said David Lechner had access to significant funds through wealthy family members.

Chief Deputy District Attorney Chris Gallo asked the judge for bail to be set at $100 million. He said David Lechner, who holds dual citizenship in Canada and the U.S., was found with a “go bag” filled with about $10,000 cash, a passport and credit cards after his wife’s murder. Gallo suggested David Lechner was a flight risk and posed a threat to Tracy Lechner’s family.

David Lechner’s public defender, Katie Telfer, said her client wanted to stay in Colorado for the duration of the case. She asked for bail to be set at $100,000 — twice the typical amount for a less serious Class 2 felony — and said a $100 million cash-only bail would be unconstitutional.

“That amount of bond is essentially equivalent to a no-bond hold, and would circumvent Mr. Lechner’s right to bail by imposing an unattainable monetary condition,” Telfer said.

After noting she was in new territory given how recently the Colorado Supreme Court made its ruling, Slade went line-by-line through the Colorado law that sets out the factors judges must consider when setting bail. Judges must set an amount that is aimed at ensuring defendants return to court and that protects public safety, she said.

Monetary bail must be “reasonable”

When setting bail, judges may consider a defendant’s employment history, family and community relationships, living situation, character, reputation and support network. Judges may also look at the likely sentence in the case, a defendant’s prior criminal record, any past failures to appear in court, the likelihood the defendant will commit more crimes if released and whether they’re likely to harass witnesses or victims, according to state law.

Any monetary bail amount must be “reasonable,” state law says.

Slade found that David Lechner posed a flight risk, was likely to ignore court orders and likely to harass, intimidate or harm Tracy Lechner’s family. She noted that first-degree murder carries the most serious sentence possible in Colorado: life in prison without the possibility of parole.

“Just because a bond is non-postable does not mean it is unconstitutional,” she said as she set the $100 million cash bail.

Tracy Lechner’s family declined to comment after the decision.

Historically, the reason to deny bail in death penalty cases was because the defendant’s life is at stake — and that’s no longer the case, Justice Richard Gabriel wrote in the Colorado Supreme Court’s unanimous opinion.

“In line with this prevailing view, for more than a century, we have recognized that the purpose for denying pre-trial release for capital offenses is because of the greater temptation to avoid trial when the defendant’s life is at stake,” he wrote.

“These are folks who are presumed innocent”

Tim Macdonald, legal director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, said that he believes the state Supreme Court made the correct decision.

“This a right that we enshrined in our constitution,” he said. “These are folks who are presumed innocent, and they ought to be entitled to get out and mount a defense and proceed from there.”

He added that judges should not be using bail as a way to keep people in jail.

“It looks potentially like they’re trying to keep them in by setting a bond so high the person can’t bond out,” he said. “But the idea of the bond is to ensure the person is going to return for their hearings and for their trial. It’s not intended to be used as a means to prevent you from getting out. So to the extent courts are setting them so high as a means to prevent people from meeting those bonds, that’s a potential problem.”

John Kellner, the district attorney for the 18th Judicial District, said in a statement Thursday that he is concerned murder defendants released on bond will run from justice.

“These defendants are facing the maximum sentence possible in Colorado, which is life without parole,” he said. “If they were to get released, what would prevent them from trying to evade justice? There’s a tremendous amount of dangerous possibilities out there with the current state of the law.”

His office is reviewing about 60 active first-degree murder cases to see whether bail needs to be set because of the state Supreme Court’s ruling, spokesman Eric Ross said.

Kellner’s concerns about suspects released before trial were echoed by family members of slain Arvada police officer Dillon Vakoff during a bond hearing Thursday for the man suspected of killing the officer.

“If this defendant has the opportunity to bond out of jail, what does that look like for the victims in this case?” his mother, Lisa Vakoff, wrote in a letter read in court. “Will he kill again? If so, who’s next? Will it be me? …Your Honor, when we heard about the Supreme Court ruling, I cannot express the outrage and the fear that I felt about how the ruling would impact not only this case, but countless, thousands of other cases in Colorado.”

First Judicial District Judge Russell Klein set bail at $15 million — well over the $10 million requested by prosecutors — after finding the suspect presented an “extraordinarily high” flight risk and threat to public safety.

Denver Post reporter Lauren Penington contributed to this report. 

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