Ray Wagner: Inmate gets a year in the hole for refusing to lie in death-penalty case?
Last month's "not guilty" verdict in the murder trial of inmate Alejandro Perez put an end to six years of costly missteps and setbacks for Eighteenth Judicial District Attorney Carol Chambers and her team of prosecutors, who'd set out to get the death penalty in a murky prison homicide. But the fallout from the troubled case isn't over yet. One alleged witness in the case is suing state prison officials, claiming he was thrown into solitary confinement for a year because he refused to provide false testimony against Perez.
Inmate Ray Wagner says he doesn't have any firsthand information about the stabbing death of Jeffrey Heird at the Limon Correctional Facility in 2004, which prosecutors maintained was a gang-related execution carried out by Perez and David Bueno. But Wagner was one of several potential witnesses identified by investigators, "and these witnesses were led to believe that they would be punished if they did not cooperate with Ms. Chambers and provide testimony favorable to the prosecution," Wagner states in his federal lawsuit.
In a 2007 hearing, Wagner testified that he couldn't have witnessed the murder because he was in a different pod at the time. Weeks later, he says, prison officials retaliated against him by putting him in "administrative segregation" -- the hole, as it's known to the convict population -- and leaving him there for 360 days.
Controversy has dogged Chambers' decision to seek death for Perez and Bueno from the start. The case lacked clear physical evidence tying them to Heird's murder and was built largely on the testimony of inmates who stood to benefit from their cooperation. Chambers billed the Colorado Department of Corrections for many of the costs of her death-penalty team; that maneuver and other questionable tactics ran afoul of the judge in the Perez case, who twice disqualified her office over conflicts of interest, misleading court filings and other possible ethics violations. Chambers appealed each decision and managed to get them overturned, but the death penalty was eventually taken off the table.
As for Perez's co-defendant, Bueno's jury returned a guilty verdict but refused to impose death. This past fall, District Judge Douglas Tallman vacated that conviction, blasting the prosecution for "withholding relevant and possibly exculpatory evidence." Chambers is now appealing that decision.
Last week, chief deputy district attorney Jason Siers told Westword he was "disappointed" in the Perez verdict and noted that some witnesses had refused to testify even when slapped with contempt charges. "The prison environment adds a certain dimension to this," he said. That brought a sharp response from Perez attorney Jim Castle, who claimed prosecutors were inappropriately trying to "spin" the verdict.
Wagner, who's serving thirty years on burglary and robbery convictions, claims that a lieutenant at Limon told him he'd "pissed off the powers that be" shortly after he refused to provide the desired testimony at the 2007 hearing. He was then removed from general population and put in the hole -- locked down for all but a few hours of week, subjected to lights that were never shut off, denied regular showers and hot water -- over his alleged involvement in smuggling tobacco into the prison. After months of administrative appeals, during which he was moved to the state supermax, a hearing board found there was no evidence to support the charge against him.
Although they offered immunity in some instances, prosecutors have denied pressuring any witnesses in the case to commit perjury. Wagner is now suing Steve Hartley, the Limon warden at the time, and six other prison officials, claiming false imprisonment, cruel and unusual punishment, and other constitutional violations.
More from our News archive: "'Labia lift' strip searches: ACLU action gooses prison officials into changing degrading policy."