The Dark Underbelly of a Courtroom

Article by Martha Quillen

Judicial System – November 1995 – Colorado Central Magazine

Last month, as soon as we finished the magazine, Ed and I started watching Salida’s trial of the century.

— Or at least we can hope there will be no more like it.

As the prosecution would have it, Richard Johnson, a drug informant, was ruthlessly murdered by Jeremy Denison, a local boy, after being lured into the mountains by a promise of Metallica tickets. The prosecution portrayed Denison as heavily into drugs, and seriously involved in what they called “a drug ring” operating between Salida and Alamosa.

The defense contended that Johnson, a twenty-four- year-old ex-marine, who had previously been arrested in Alamosa for illegal possession of a firearm and for selling steroids, had been killed in self-defense after he attacked Jeremy Denison with a pocket knife.

As the defense saw it, Johnson was a dangerous character who had carelessly been recruited as an informant by the Salida Police Department after Johnson, Denison, and two of their friends were pulled over for driving erratically; a subsequent search revealed two bags of marijuana.

The next day I went to court, and found it wholly confusing. There was talk of blood spatters, foot prints, tire tracks, and wounds. The word “cult” was used as the prosecution insinuated that Jeremy was part of an extensive drug ring given to bizarre, cultish behavior.

But there seemed to be no evidence to support that contention. There was testimony about Metallica and another band named Kyuss, but the issue wasn’t expanded upon that day, and made little sense to me. If you wanted to attend a rock concert, why on earth would you drive eight miles up Ute Trail?

Some of the prosecution’s minor contentions seemed extremely dubious. I detested their persistence in hinting at cults, and I didn’t like the way they kept implying the existence of an extensive drug ring when the evidence didn’t substantiate that conclusion.

Altogether, I was alarmed at how sensationalistic their depiction was. But by the second day, I understood the prosecution’s primary theory. In short, they claimed that Jeremy Denison had realized Johnson was an informant, and had thereafter plotted to kill him.

As they saw it, Jeremy Denison had lured Johnson into the hills, although Johnson was definitely driving the car. There, Denison attacked Johnson with a knife.

But Johnson got away. He jumped into his car, and took off. He’d been stabbed in the nose, and he’d lost a tooth. He was faint with pain and blood-loss. Johnson decelerated, and crashed into an embankment.

Whereupon Denison ran to the car on foot. On the embankment, Denison smashed in the driver-side car window, and forced open the jammed car door, actually unspringing it from the frame and dislocating it by several inches.

As the prosecution told it, Richard Johnson was by then unconscious, and thus Jeremy Denison easily and viciously slit his throat.

Characterizing the murder as both plotted and premeditated, the prosecution charged the defendant with felony murder, first-degree murder, aggravated robbery, and the sale of marijuana.

There were obvious problems with that scenario, however. Richard Johnson was 6’2″, and weighed 190 pounds, and Denison was far smaller. So why would Denison employ a knife as his weapon of choice? How on earth did he spring that car door? How did the seriously injured Johnson escape from a murderous and healthy Denison to drive away in the first place? How did a decelerating vehicle with an unconscious driver lunge up an embankment?

For a premeditated homicide, the murder seemed haphazard. Why didn’t Denison get rid of the damaged car? Why didn’t he dispose of his own bloody clothing? Afterwards, why did he go to his sister’s apartment in Denver, where everyone expected him to be?

The strongest evidence the prosecution presented came from El Paso County Coroner David Bowerman, who performed an autopsy on Johnson. Bowerman claimed the fatal wounds to Johnson’s throat were typically defensive, and would be consistent with a homicide. In the long run, his pictures were probably the most decisive evidence, although they were definitely not the easiest to evaluate.

While on the stand, Bowerman also explained his belief that Johnson had lost a tooth in his initial fight with Denison, and that the missing tooth had not been knocked out when Johnson hit the steering wheel as his car collided with the embankment.

The prosecution needed this evidence to support its argument that Johnson had been so weak from blood loss that he’d lost consciousness and run into a cliff. With several superficial wounds, a lost tooth, and a stab wound through the nose, Johnson would have lost an estimated pint of blood over time — perhaps enough to lose consciousness. With the tooth still in place, Johnson’s “grievous” condition was iffy.

According to the prosecution, the tooth couldn’t have been knocked out by the steering wheel, since the steering wheel should have left a contusion on Johnson’s face that wasn’t present. Instead, the coroner contended that the tooth was lost because its root was damaged when Johnson got stabbed.

Ah, but the tooth next to the missing tooth had been broken off. Therefore, I figured the steering wheel had to be the culprit, and the missing contusion merely indicated that Johnson’s mouth was open when his teeth hit the wheel — which meant in turn that Johnson was probably fully conscious as he drove down the road.

And yet he’d crashed into a mountain at a relatively low rate of speed. Why?

Well, at the time I didn’t have an inkling; I just thought the prosecution’s story was full of holes.

At first, I worried about wholly discounting the testimony of an expert witness, but after a little thought it didn’t bother me much. Ed’s a great Kennedy assassination buff. And in that case, the experts have obscured the entire assassination. Depending on which expert you prefer, there were two, three, four, or more bullets, of assorted makes and calibers, fired from either the underpass, the grassy knoll, the School Book Depository, or various other sites, or various combinations thereof. In the last thirty years, the experts have layered on so many theories that the truth about the Kennedy assassination will never be known.

Which is about what I thought of the Denison case at that point. But some things did seem clear, and one of those things was that the prosecution tended to exaggerate.

The prosecution had more evidence, a lot more evidence. But most of it didn’t seem too substantial. For example:

It was January and Richard Johnson was planning on leaving for school in Durango, but not until after he’d taken Denison to Denver. So just what did it mean when Jeremy Denison told a girl who was frightened of Richard Johnson that she wouldn’t have to worry because, “Rich will be gone in a few days.”?

Therefore, a few days into the Denison trial, I suspected the actual offense was an unpremeditated second-degree murder at most.

That weekend, we went up to the murder site, armed with our trial notes to try to reconstruct the event. But to my astonishment, the place looked nothing like I had imagined it. There, the significant points, where the car had stopped, where the car had crashed, and where the body had lain, were still marked in red surveyor’s paint, even though eight months had gone by.

Five of us walked up and down the road studying the site, but we couldn’t make the prosecution’s story work. Things just seemed wrong. The glass. The embankment. The position of the body. The angle from which Denison would have had to open that car door.

Perhaps inspired by the prosecution, however, we came up with whole new theories. Maybe Johnson and Denison had gone up there to meet someone, maybe a lot of someones, maybe a whole Colombian cartel. Maybe someone else had actually been in the car with Johnson — someone who could have helped Denison force the car door from the inside.

At home, my sanity returned. I realized I was spinning intricate webs when the truth was no doubt simpler, simpler than anything I had come up with, and simpler than the convoluted account advanced by the prosecution.

At the same time, I knew the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth was already lost. Even if Jeremy Denison chose to relay an honest account, he would not know the truth as it is now represented in a courtroom.

Life is not experienced in patterns of shattered glass, in blood splatters, footprints, and tire tracks. Yet Denison would be expected to account for those things.

In the courtroom, everyone pretends that the past can be resurrected in infinite detail, but past events cannot be restored. That is the nature of time, and the definition of the word “past.”

By Sunday evening, I was seriously depressed.

If you haven’t noticed, evidence these days is technical, detailed, and tedious. Yet the jurors determining this case could take no notes, and they wouldn’t have access to a trial transcript, either. They were not even allowed to talk about the case until the proceedings were over. The jury had to rely upon its memory.

And unless they had minds like Cray computers, I couldn’t see how they’d actually be relying on the evidence. No one could remember such a plethora of pieces.

A host of minor discrepancies convinced me that the prosecutors were trying to fit the evidence to their theory of the crime — instead of trying to figure out what had really happened from the evidence.

I should admit that I also harbored a darker thought that the prosecutors knew what had actually happened up on Ute Trail, but they hadn’t liked it, and had thus come up with a different version.

But perhaps that’s how trials work — by presenting two versions, one tailored for the prosecution, and one tailored for the defense, with neither presentation approaching the truth.

On Sunday evening, I sat and pondered the crime scene, and finally came up with a scenario that worked to my satisfaction with all the evidence.

Johnson and Denison stopped near the junction where the Turret Road crosses Railroad Gulch, and they got out of the car. There, they fought, and a knife came into play.

Although I didn’t know who pulled the knife, I assumed it was Denison, because Denison ended up with it. But I also assumed Johnson had probably started the fight, because he was bigger, and not the sort you’d heedlessly attack with a knife.

At the turn-off, Denison stabbed Johnson once, and struck him numerous times with the knife, causing several superficial wounds. Then Denison turned and ran.

Whereupon Johnson jumped into his car, and took off fast, fishtailing. According to the evidence presented, Johnson then decelerated, so I assumed it was to stay behind the fleeing Denison to terrorize him.

Whereupon Denison bolted up an embankment. He should have gone down, I thought — where there were trees. But then I realized that people do not plunge over blind cliffs while running full-out. Instead, he scrabbled up the embankment.

Then Johnson, still in pursuit, and undoubtedly enraged at being stabbed, slammed his Trans Am into the mountain, and hit his teeth on the steering wheel.

Yet luckily, or unluckily, depending upon how you look at it, Denison had scrambled beyond the climbing ability of the Trans Am. Johnson opened the car door, and Denison slashed at him with the knife he still clutched in one hand.

In light of the evidence, this seemed the most likely sequence of events. This scenario didn’t include a mysteriously broken tooth. It didn’t rely on an unsubstantiated claim of unconsciousness. It didn’t fail to explain why the car veered toward the cliff, reaccelerating to climb the embankment. It didn’t fail to explain how most of the glass had ended up sprayed outside of the car when Denison had presumably smashed the window inward to get at Johnson. It didn’t put Denison on his knees on a crumbling embankment, pounding from a clumsy angle so assiduously that he managed to damage the door frame.

In the final analysis, I decided that the car door had either been damaged in the accident, or that it had been damaged when Denison drove the car off of the embankment, (which the scene suggested was a tricky feat). And then I called it a night, because I had laundry to do.

But if this sequence of events was right — and Denison actually broke off that first fight, and ran, only to get chased down and challenged again — then there was no premeditation, deliberation or deadly intent involved, and that meant this wasn’t a first- or second-degree murder.

Now, I was down to either a third-degree homicide, which meant that the defendant had knowingly caused the death of another person in a sudden heat of passion following an act which may have provoked the occurrence, or to innocence by reason of self-defense.

And it depended entirely upon what Denison thought in that moment. Johnson was bigger and had just chased Denison down in a car. And he must have been mad, mad enough to crash his car into a mountain. But Johnson had also knocked his tooth out in the accident. His mouth must have been streaming blood, and he may well have been dazed.

So did Denison think, “Now I can get him,” or did he think, “Oh, my God, he’s coming for me.”?

The next day in the courtroom, Denison’s story pretty much conformed with my own, so I tended to believe it. His version, however, was far more harrowing.

As Denison told it, Johnson had been listening to music, and singing along, acting normally, until they got out of the car. But then Johnson said, “[John] Means doesn’t trust you. And I don’t trust you. I can’t get anything done.” Then Johnson pulled a knife on Denison.

Denison pitched into Johnson, however, causing the knife to drop. Denison got to it first, but Johnson charged him in a tackle position.

Whereupon Denison scrabbled backwards, jabbing at Johnson with the knife, until he got far enough back. Then, spinning around, Denison hightailed it down the road.

But Johnson followed him in the car, pulling up right behind him. Whereupon Denison scrambled up the embankment, and the Trans Am crashed below him.

Denison said he didn’t see the accident, but he was sprayed with glass. He turned around, and the car was right there, in front of him, partially hemming him in. And Richard Johnson was glaring at him.

Johnson opened the car door, and Denison slashed at Johnson twice with the knife. Then Denison turned and ran again.

Denison said he got about 200 yards down the road before he looked down at the knife in his hand. It was covered with blood, and so was he. Realizing he must have killed Johnson, he threw the knife as far as he could, and started to run back. He contended that his only thoughts were that he had killed a man, and that he had to get away.

Asked repeatedly about the whys and wherefores of his behavior by the prosecution, Denison repeatedly replied, “I was scared. I was so scared.”

As Denison described them, his actions were clumsy. He ran to get his hat at the original fight scene. He crunched the car door trying to get the car off of the embankment. On the road he couldn’t get the door shut, so he kicked and pounded on it. He left the body in the middle of the road, and backed the car up the mountain. Then, he came back down, and saw the body in the middle of the road, and decided he should move it. He took money out of Johnson’s pocket, because he had no cash for gas.

When asked how he could do such things, how he could take that money, and how he could drive all the way to Denver in a blood-soaked car, Denison responded that he was scared, and that he wanted to get away. He said he just kept thinking that he had to get away.

But in the end, Denison was arrested two days later at his sister’s apartment, the apartment his friends and relatives in Salida knew he was moving into. When the police arrived, Denison was sitting on the couch with his bloody clothing in a bag nearby, and the smashed Trans Am was parked on the street a block and a half away. He seemed to be expecting the police, and immediately told them, “my sister has nothing to do with this.”

Although it may not have been the whole truth and nothing but the truth, I was inclined to give Denison the benefit of the doubt — since his was the first version of events that made any sense to me.

Carl Cober, an accident reconstructionist from Colorado Springs, also testified for the defense. Although the prosecution’s expert had contended that Denison broke the car window to get at Johnson, Cober said the door was open when Johnson’s car slammed to a halt on the embankment. According to Cober the window shattered and the door got damaged as the car rocked back, scraping into the hill.

And that open door, of course, suggested that Johnson was not only conscious, he was eager to get out. Cober also felt the tracks and impact site were inconsistent with an unconscious driver, and that the door had never been jammed shut.

But as it turned out, all of that convoluted evidence and harrowing testimony had little to do with the case. While the jury was out, the judge and attorneys conferred on the charges, and apparently they were unusual charges indeed.

Felony murder is a special charge, generally applied only in cases of armed robbery. Its purpose is to discourage bank robbers and the like from killing in the course of their transgressions. Felony murder only applies to murders that take place during the commission of a robbery, or in the furtherance of that robbery, and the death is generally a direct result of that robbery.

As applied to Denison, it was a radically unusual charge. The judge questioned it, and the prosecutors contended that it was their belief that Denison had killed Johnson in order to steal his Trans Am, gloves, and money ($53).

Except robbery was also an unusual charge. Stealing goes by a lot of names like theft, burglary, and robbery, but by statute, aggravated robbery refers only to cases where force, threats, or intimidation are used. Thus the judge questioned whether the prosecution had mistaken the law against robbery, because he couldn’t see how you could threaten a dead man. And Johnson was definitely dead when the car, the gloves, and the money were taken.

The prosecutors hesitated for a moment, but came back. They replied that it was their contention that Denison had always intended to steal the car, money, and gloves, and that Denison had used the ultimate force.

(Actually, that almost seemed ridiculous since earlier that day that same car had been sitting in the hills out of gas, and Johnson had given Denison the keys, and told him to go and fetch it. Denison could have stolen the car at any time.)

But the case goes on.

The reason this charge seemed particularly important is that self-defense is not an allowable defense for felony murder. That stands to reason, since otherwise it would be acceptable for bank robbers to shoot back when bank guards started firing.

Anyway, because of the nature of the charges, defense attorney Ernest M rquez requested that some kind of clarification be given to the jury, but the judge refused.

The judge contended that it was not the court’s place to inform the jury on the purpose of the law. And further, he claimed, that if the death occurred as the defendant contended, the jury would know that it did not occur as part of a robbery.

Actually, I wasn’t at all sure that was true, unless they explained the law more fully — as they did when the jury was outside of the room.

But the judge’s decision was hardly surprising. In this trial, the defense lost most of its arguments, a lot of its instructions, and was overruled again and again.

As to what all of those instructions, discussions and arguments are about — basically they’re about what the jury can and cannot know.

For example, before Denison testified, the judge warned the defense that if Denison took the stand,his prior record would be opened; Denison had been found guilty of burglary some months earlier and had received a suspended sentence.

Normally, a defendant’s criminal record cannot be entered into evidence, since it presumably has no bearing on the case at hand. But if a defendant testifies, the prior record can be presented to help the jury judge his credibility as a witness.

If he testified, Denison would lose his protection from mention of that prior conviction. But Denison testified regardless.

And thereafter the prosecution built that deferred sentence for burglary into a prime motive by claiming that Denison had killed Johnson after finding out Johnson was an informant — because he feared he would have to serve his deferred sentence.

As usual, there were some problems with that scenario, since there was no evidence Denison had ever found out Johnson was an informant, and since Denison had already been picked up with marijuana by the time of the murder.

But it still seems odd that motives can come and go so easily.

Still, as I watched the proceedings I began to think that keeping the jury uninformed was one of the chief objectives of the entire system.

And thus, the jury’s knowledge of the law regarding felony murder and aggravated robbery was confined to the prosecution’s summary, and to the jury’s final instructions, where brief summaries of those charges, and a multitude of other guidelines, were crammed together pretty cryptically.

From that point forward, the prosecution contended that Denison had always planned to steal the car, the gloves, and the money. Yet sometimes I wondered if the jury even noticed the difference. The prosecution also started reminding the jury, every so often, that self-defense was not an available defense against felony murder. And thereafter, the prosecution’s case generally slid along smoothly.

And what a slide it was — landing right in the dark “underbelly” of Salida, as Assistant District Attorney Kathy Eberling called it.

Throughout the trial, Eberling railed, sometimes passionately and sometimes contemptuously, not about Jeremy Denison, but about “these people,” while peppering her comments with references to drug rings, drug worlds, and drug cults, all presumably menacing sleepy little Salida.

Although there was no evidence to support her assumption, Eberling also insisted that a pair of Johnson’s gloves found on the floor of the car had been removed from the body. Basing her claim entirely on the assertion that the grievously injured Johnson could not have had time to remove his gloves, Eberling came back to those gloves again and again.

“This is what haunts me,” she said, going on to explain the “symbolic speech,” of the gloves. According to Eberling, taking something personal from the victim was a way to say “I’ll show you.”

Eberling also claimed Denison had thrown Johnson’s sunglasses down the road in an aberrant attempt to humiliate Johnson. Denison, however, merely said he couldn’t remember what had happened to Johnson’s sunglasses.

Referring to a small stab wound on Johnson’s tongue, Eberling claimed that there were people who would argue that this is what you do to informants.

Likewise, Eberling insisted that Denison had callously left Johnson straddling a tree in a profane attempt to disgrace his victim.

Out at the crime scene, it looked as though Denison had dragged the body over the embankment to the closest place possible, only a few feet away from the road. And the tree seemed relatively insignificant, one of many. But the jury never saw the scene.

In the long run, Eberling never actually said Denison belonged to a cult, nor did she present any evidence or witnesses to discuss cults or symbolic language. Instead, she merely dropped the word “cult” into the proceedings, now and again.

Finally Eberling assured the jury that, “You are the people who will decide what’s acceptable in this community.”

Ed Rodgers concluded the prosecution’s case by talking about the “tangled, unhealthy, ugly relationships” of these people. “People like…” Rodgers named names and scattered blame. “They’re not healthy.” “You can’t ignore the brutality of this setting.” “You can’t ignore the way these people act.” “You’ve got people brandishing guns.”

Actually, that indictment of Denison struck me as funny, since the only people brandishing guns in all of the testimony were the two police informants: Johnson and Means.

But it worked — even though it was a fabrication.

In reality, there was no drug ring.

Yes, there were a bunch of college kids who smoked too much marijuana, cared too little about school, and got into far too much trouble.

But Lee Roybal, an agent of the Colorado Bureau of Investigation testified in court that even though Richard Johnson was wired and under surveillance for several weeks, no arrests were made, and no drugs were seen.

Even more to the point, Denison was never mentioned on Johnson’s tapes. Moreover, he seemed flat broke all of the time, a curious condition for a major player in a drug ring. And even the marijuana charge Denison faced at the trial stemmed from that original evening when four young men were stopped, and one named Richard Johnson became an informant.

Furthermore, both Salida Police informants — who were men who would have to answer to previous offenses if they were unable to make a buy — seemed desperate enough to run around pulling guns on people because they couldn’t make any deals.

In spite of all the testimony to the contrary, there was no cartel, no mafia, no organization of any sort. There was merely one kid, a friend of Denison’s, who was known to wheel and deal at a relatively low level, and curiously enough, he wasn’t busted.

Yet, cults and drugs were what the prosecution implied the jury could put a stop to — if they found Denison guilty.

And they did. When all was said and done, Jeremy Denison was found guilty on all counts, and sentenced to life imprisonment without possibility of parole.

That verdict stunned me. Admittedly, Denison was not an exemplary youth. Nor can I claim that, given a second chance, Denison would probably turn into a model citizen. But I found that verdict extraordinarily unjust.

To illustrate my feelings, perhaps a parable would suffice:

If you were to be stopped tomorrow for going ten miles over the speed limit, would you think it was fair for the courts to make an example out of you? Would you think it was fair to cite you for reckless endangerment, and several counts of felony child abuse for knowingly and willingly putting the children in your car in jeopardy? At your hearing, do you think it would be fair to lump you into a group with all of the other speed demons, drunken drivers, and uncaring thrillseekers, who deliberately plague our highways and endanger our children because they have no respect for law or decency? Do you think it would be fair if you ended up serving several years in the state penitentiary for an offense others redress with a fine?

In short, even though it’s commonplace to make individuals serve as examples, I still don’t think it’s fair.

At this point, I should probably tell you that Jeremy was not such a bad kid — or that he was a vicious punk. But that’s entirely beside the point.

Actually, not being on the jury, I did ask dozens of people what Denison was like, and I got answers from, “He’s a creep,” to “He’s such a sweet kid.” But either way, it didn’t matter.

Jeremy Denison wasn’t running for prom king, he was being tried for murder. And thus, he deserved a fair and impartial hearing, and he was entitled to be charged with the appropriate offenses, and to receive equal treatment under the law, and to be assumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

But I don’t think that’s what Denison got in that courtroom.

District Attorney Rodgers had an excellent third-degree murder case, one he could have won without using duplicity or theatrics. But Rodgers chose to make Denison’s trial into a murky, complicated tale of excess that slandered Salida instead.

And that story permeated the Mountain Mail, finally resulting in an editorial condemning drug infiltration, supporting undercover operations, and lamenting the prospect of 12- and 16-year-old children getting involved.

Thus, in the end, the Denison trial saddled Salida with a heavy-metal, death-cult, drug world as firmly based in reality as the average grade-B movie script.

So now I know how the Amiraults of Massachusetts were accused of running a preschool given to raping, biting, bloodletting, torture, and the evisceration of animals, and found guilty, even though there was no collaborating physical or medical evidence.

Now, I know how a retarded Sunday School teacher was imprisoned for sex abuse and kidnapping after being accused of torturing, raping, and actually murdering children during church hours — even though he was almost never alone with the children, and nobody in the nearby rooms heard anything untoward, and no physical evidence was found to substantiate the charges.

Now, I know why citizens of Colorado can be listed on a sexual offenders list and deprived of their livelihoods without due process.

It’s because evidence is irrelevant.

Guilt and innocence are secondary in our court system today.


Because our judge, and our District Attorney, and our police, and the American people in general, now feel that they have to stop this madness — whatever it may be.

And to do that they have to set an example, to show the accused, to show the criminals, to show everyone, everywhere, that they won’t get away with anything. For that, we’ve dispensed with both truth and justice.

And the horror of it is that it won’t work.

Drugs are older than our constitution, and more tenacious than our wavering devotion to liberty. Nepenthe, soma, cannabis, kykeon, peyote, opium, kif, and iboga — drugs have been with us throughout history. At the turn of this century, there was heroin in the cough syrup and coca in the cola.

No matter how draconian our justice system gets, drugs won’t be eliminated. Nor will our streets be any safer.

On the contrary, our murder rate soared as we intensified the drug war in the 1990s. Not since prohibition has the U.S. murder rate climbed so high.

At the Denison trial, witness after witness got on the stand and said Richard Johnson scared them. Denison said he had decided to move to Denver, rather to Durango, because living around Johnson had gotten too weird. From the testimony, it was obvious that Johnson was still using and distributing drugs. Yet, when given the chance, the Salida Police Department decided not to arrest Johnson, but to employ him.

There’s a series of advertisements on television which show children using drugs while parental voices in the background deny that their children would ever become involved with drugs. It’s a point well-taken. Drugs can happen in the best of families.

So what do you want the police to do?

Do you want them to send in an informant with a flashy car, and ready cash, and a seemingly endless supply of marijuana to lure your kid in further?

Because that’s what they’re doing.

At the Denison trial, CBI Agent Roybal testified that informants were definitely endangered. Yet teenagers facing minimal charges sometimes end up being informants — even though they are not qualified law enforcement officers. Is it worth it?

And even worse, the Denison case showed police informants who were out of control. At one point, Agent Roybal got a call from Johnson, who said that John Means, the other police informant, was holding him hostage at gunpoint. And Johnson himself was reputed to be running around town gunning for someone on another evening.

The Mountain Mail tells you to support undercover operations, but it doesn’t tell you that over and over again, such operations have increased criminal activity in relatively serene towns. Informants have to make so many buys. So the word goes out that there are buyers, and the drugs come in, and far too often, so do the criminals.

Overzealous police protection is a danger to everyone. What happens when some kid bolts during a lock-down drug search at Salida High School? What if that kid has a gun? Will the police open fire? Will someone be hit by stray bullets? Will it be your child?

— Maybe it will be.

— Or maybe it will be you.

Because right now Americans don’t seem to care how many innocents have to be sacrificed in order to make them feel safe.

And that’s far more disturbing than the idea of a few college kids smoking marijuana. After all, both Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich have admitted that they once smoked grass — and they got over it.

But they wouldn’t have — if they’d gotten killed.

America is getting meaner, and more vindictive every day. We hike the punishments. We convert misdemeanors into felonies. We pile on spurious charges. And by doing so we make the entire legal system unworkable.

Justice should be swift and fair. But instead we advocate sentences so extreme we’d be foolish to make anyone serve them — since sending young misfits to the state penitentiary would be like sending them to a trade school for criminality.

We spy on our children, testing their urine, searching their lockers, wiring their friends, and surveying their movements.

We treat young people like suspected felons, and then we’re horrified as more and more of them slip into a separate culture, a different tribe, an alternate ethos.

We advocate classes that claim people can detect drug usage just by looking, even when that is far from true.

Our police agencies use deadly force in situations that put the innocent in peril.

And thus, our law enforcement agencies seem to be alienating more and more people. Unorthodox groups have emerged to express their rage, at the World Trade Center, at a Federal Building in Oklahoma City, at an Amtrak train in Arizona.

Yet, now even our courtrooms are expected to clean the streets, rather than oversee justice. And still we don’t review policy, we don’t change our direction, and we don’t calm our rhetoric.

In Salida, Jeremy Denison sat on the stand and said, “I was scared. I was so scared.”

But no one believed him — because Denison wasn’t just a young man who had gotten into a fight that had gotten out of control and thereby ended in the death of his friend, which is, of course, a tragic tale as old as Homer.

No, Denison was part of the ugly, tangled, sordid, cult-driven, underworld of drug-crazed youth, now threatening the very fabric of America. And everybody knew that.

So something had to be done. And it didn’t matter if that something didn’t uphold the spirit of justice, or the interest of the law, or the principles of our constitution — because our systems are flexible, and can be adjusted.

Under the circumstances, we should all be scared.

Martha Quillen hopes she never needs to attend another murder trial in the 11th Judicial District.