Press "Enter" to skip to content

District Attorney faces recall move after plea bargain

Brief by Central Staff

Law enforcement – December 2001 – Colorado Central Magazine

District Attorney Ed Rodgers may face a recall election in the 11th Judicial District, which comprises Chaffee, Custer, Frémont, and Park counties.

Rodgers made a decision that didn’t sit well in some quarters: he accepted a plea-bargain in a murder case instead of seeking the death penalty.

The murder victim was Jason Schwartz, a deputy sheriff in Frémont County. His father-in-law, John Coyner, announced in early November that he had filed papers with the Colorado Secretary of State for a political committee to gather at least 6,054 signatures on petitions for a recall election which would take place in April.

Rodgers, a Republican, was re-elected in 2000 without opposition. Term limits mean he would leave office in early 2005 if the recall effort fails.

It started on the night of Sept. 28, when the dispatcher got a call about gunfire in Penrose, which turned out to be a dog being shot and killed. Deputies Jason Schwartz and Tony Esquibel responded, and encountered 24-year-old twin brothers Michael and Joel Stovall.

Joel was arrested for shooting the dog; then Michael was arrested for causing a disturbance during the arrest. Without being searched, they were put in Schwartz’s patrol car for transport to the county jail.

One brother had a handcuff key, as well as a 9-mm pistol. They shot and killed Schwartz near the intersection of Colo. 115 and U.S. 50 west of Canon City, then the brothers took off on foot for a mobile home they rented in Florence.

There, they grabbed more guns and body armor, then stole a pickup. As they were leaving, they shot at Florence policeman Toby Bethel, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down. Then they headed west on U.S. 50, with one brother firing from the pickup bed.

Police set up roadblocks and tire-spike barricades. The Stovall brothers left the stolen pickup near the mouth of Bear Creek, about five miles east of Salida. They surrendered without incident the next day.

While they were at large, Salidans were urged to keep their doors locked if they went out, and not to leave the keys in their vehicles. Police feared that the brothers might make their way to town, and then either steal a car or hole up in an unoccupied house — which could lead to a siege or a gunbattle.

Fortunately, good police work kept that from happening.

If ever a case appeared to call for the death penalty, this one seemed to fit, and we were somewhat surprised when Rodgers did not seek it. But he had his reasons, which he explained in the hearing on Nov. 2 when District Judge John Anderson accepted the plea agreement.

Rodgers said there could be Miranda problems with Michael Stovall’s three-hour confession, and a jury might have trouble believing that confession, since Michael accused Joel of all the shootings. Even if he got a conviction for first-degree murder, Rodgers said, Colorado law specifies that a special three-judge panel give the death sentence, and Rodgers said that the Schwartz murder was unlikely to meet the criteria for capital punishment.

Thus, he said he could not in good conscience take the brothers to trial to seek the death penalty, since he believed it was unlikely that it would be applied. So he took the deal when they agreed to plead guilty in exchange for sentences of life plus 896 years.

At the Nov. 2 sentencing hearing, Schwartz’s widow, Sheryl, said the life sentences represented a denial of justice for her husband’s murder. A few days later, Gov. Bill Owens also criticized Rodgers for not seeking the death penalty, and later that week, Park County Sheriff Fred Wegener said that “Because of this situation, I believe my own officers’ lives are considered of less value by the district attorney’s office than the criminals they are trying to protect us from…. As law enforcement officers, we need to know that the DA will prosecute criminals to the fullest extent of the law.”

The Stovall brothers will die behind bars. We’re not especially versed in the law, but Rodgers’s reasoning sounded logical to us. Those who object to the D.A.’s stance seem to have made some assumptions that probably shouldn’t be taken for granted.

The Governor, the widow, and the Park County Sheriff seem to have concluded that a trial would have inevitably led to a death penalty decision, and that’s not necessarily true. With a trial, there was always a chance that one of the brothers would have received a lesser term. With the plea bargain, life-long prison terms were given to both of them.