A defense attorney accused prosecutors Monday of “anti-Mexican bias” in their push to unmask a 22-year-old death penalty candidate as an undocumented immigrant.
At a fiery hearing in 4th Judicial District Court, Denver attorney Carrie Thompson, who is representing Marco Antonio Garcia-Bravo, asked a judge to bar references to his immigration status at trial and any potential sentencing hearing, saying it isn't relevant to his guilt or innocence in the execution-style shootings of Coronado High School students Derek Greer and Natalie Cano-Partida in March 2017.
But the detail could turn a jury against him, determining whether he lives or dies, she said.
“Is that fact that this guy is Mexican a reason he should be executed?” said Thompson. “It’s immoral. It’s unethical.”
Garcia-Bravo, one of two alleged triggermen in the shocking killings, was brought to the United States by his family at age 6, making the issue immaterial, the defense says. Prosecutors countered that he had a legal responsibility to seek authorization to remain once he became an adult.
The question of what’s said in court in a capital case has special relevance in Colorado, where a jury, not the judge, chooses whether to impose life or death. District Judge David A. Shakes ultimately will decide what evidence is admissible at the trial, which is slated to begin Jan. 6.
If Garcia-Bravo is convicted, the defense could "open the door" to discussing his immigration status if they put on evidence about his abusive childhood in Mexico, said Assistant Attorney General Dan Edwards, part of the prosecution team.
Even if he came here as a child, he had the legal responsibility to seek authorization when he became an adult, Edwards added.
“There’s a lot of people in the U.S. … who think that’s not a good thing and says a lot about a person’s character,” he said.
The argument left Thompson squirming in her seat at the defense table.
“When Mr. Edwards said it as clear as he said it, I wanted to weep,” she later told the judge.
Garcia-Bravo is the last of 10 people charged in the shootings who is still being prosecuted. The other alleged shooter, Diego Chacon, pleaded guilty to two counts of second-degree murder and is serving 60 years in prison. Others await sentencing for their roles.
The courtroom battle comes amid nationwide scrutiny of the death penalty system, which houses and executes a disproportionate number of minorities, studies show.
The defense cited worries over how anti-immigrant rhetoric, especially in the age of President Trump, might influence the case.
“When you’ve got President Donald Trump saying they’re rapists and murderers, that’s a huge problem for Mr. Garcia-Bravo, because you’re going to have a lot of jurors come who believe that’s true,” she said.
The defense has asked the judge to adopt special instructions for jurors and screen a video explaining the dangers of “implicit bias,” or prejudice that jurors may bring to deliberations without ever declaring them or even being aware of them, she said.
Edwards objected to showing the video. If implicit bias exists, there’s no evidence it can be identified, he told the court. Other concerns about illegal racial considerations could be addressed with jury instructions, Edwards said.