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The Court of Appeals has upheld the murder conviction of Sir Mario Owens, one of the final three men on Colorado's death row, after concluding he received a fair trial despite an unusual series of connections one juror had to his case.

In a detailed opinion on Thursday that totaled roughly 100 pages, a three-member panel for the appeals court agreed that prosecutors failed to disclose information that would have benefitted Owens and that defense attorneys struggled with getting eyewitnesses to cooperate. Nevertheless, the panel decided those issues were not so serious as to warrant a new trial.

"When a defendant has received a fair, albeit imperfect, trial, the law strongly favors finality," wrote Judge David J. Richman in the October 7 decision.

A jury convicted Owens for the fatal 2005 shooting of Javad Marshall-Fields and his fiancee, Vivian Wolfe in Aurora. Owens received a death sentence as a result, but Gov. Jared Polis commuted it to life in prison in 2020 following the General Assembly's abolition of capital punishment.

At the time of his slaying, Marshall-Fields was set to testify as a witness against Owens for the July 4, 2004 killing of Gregory Vann at Lowry Park. It was his trial and conviction for Vann's murder that prompted the latest appeal from Owens.

Owens put forward several claims following his conviction calling into question the fairness of his trial. In 2017, retired District Court Judge Christopher J. Munch reviewed what the Court of Appeals described as a "monumental amount" of evidence. He ultimately declined to grant a new trial.

A substantial part of Owens' appeal centered around the alleged misconduct of a juror in his murder trial, identified in court documents as "Juror 75." During the trial, Juror 75 encountered a testifying witness at her son's apartment, recognized faces in the courtroom, knew a friend of Owens' who was in the courtroom, and had had the victim (Vann) over to her house when he was a child.

Owens also contended that Juror 75 lied on her questionnaire before the trial, stating she had not been a victim, witness or defendant, and that she did not recognize the names of Vann or Marshall-Fields. Owens contended all of those answers were false.

"We have testimony from her son that [Vann] was a frequent guest at the house and she was liked by a lot of his friends," said Judge Craig R. Welling during oral arguments in August. "But we don’t have a finding one way or the other as to whether or not she knew Mr. Vann."

Munch, in his review of the case, determined Juror 75 did not intentionally lie or fail to disclose relevant information. As such, the woman was not biased against Owens in a manner that impaired his constitutional rights, even if her placement on the jury would have been challenged in the first place had the defense known the full story.

"Like the postconviction court, we see this as a 'troubling dilemma' because had all of this information come to the attention of the attorneys and the court during the trial, an alternate may have been seated in Juror 75’s place," Richman wrote. 

In large part, the appellate panel's task was to review whether Munch's conclusions were arbitrary or capricious. The panel found they were not. As such, the panel declined to grant a new trial amid allegations that Owens' trial lawyers provided ineffective assistance, that prosecutors failed to disclose information beneficial to the defense, and that Munch unfairly limited testimony from Owens' witnesses during his review.

The appellate judges summarily rejected each claim. Owens "was granted virtually every exception to a typical amount of appellate and postconviction review" because the case was directly related to Owens' death penalty sentence in the murders of Marshall-Fields and Wolfe. Owens' public defenders were justified in pursuing a theory of self-defense, and they investigated his case reasonably in light of witnesses to the shooting who simply did not want to talk to them. 

The judges did acknowledge that prosecutors withheld information from the defense about their involvement in the unrelated criminal case of one witness, Jamar Johnson. There was also an undisclosed police bulletin on the night of the shooting and a report of initial suspect descriptions that were inconsistent with the description of Owens.

"While we agree that much of this evidence should have been disclosed and that some of it could have been used to further impeach Johnson," Richman wrote, the evidence was largely duplicative of what the defense already knew. Finally, the panel noted there was "overwhelming evidence" that Owens shot Vann in the park, meaning a defense of mistaken identity would not have been advantageous.

Rhonda Fields, the mother of Marshall-Fields who is now a Democratic state senator from Aurora, welcomed the appellate panel's decision as a sign that the judicial system had functioned according to the rule of law.

"There's no way of making this situation whole for me as a mom who's lost her son," she said, adding that the entire legal process, now spanning a decade and a half, has been "very fatiguing."

One of the remaining men to have his death sentence commuted, Robert Ray, was also found guilty for his own involvement in the murders of Vann, Marshall-Fields and Wolfe. Owens' appeal argued that evidence existed suggesting that Ray was actually Vann's killer.

The case is People v. Owens.

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