The Colorado Court of Appeals erred when it ruled that a Thornton arsonist should have received concurrent sentences served at the same time for his attempted murder of 10 people, the state Supreme Court decided on Tuesday.
On March 4, 2014, Martin Castruita Espinoza started a fire on his mother’s apartment balcony in Thornton, which spread to the entire building and a second in the complex. After 10 people were able to escape from the burning building, prosecutors filed 10 charges against Espinoza for attempted murder.
“Two residents and two firefighters were injured in the fire,” said Dave Young, the district attorney for Adams and Broomfield counties, after the trial. “A number of residents lost their pets in the fire….[and] families showed up for weeks after the fire in desperate hope that their missing pets had survived and would turn up.”
Espinoza was convicted on the 10 counts of attempted extreme indifference murder, which involves knowingly engaging in conduct that presents a “grave risk of death to a person.” In total, Espinoza received a prison sentence of 160 years, or 16 years for each victim. In doing so, the court followed Colorado law requiring consecutive sentences for separate violent crimes arising from the same incident.
An appellate panel overturned his sentence, concluding that separate crimes of violence could not rely on identical evidence, and subsequently returned the case to the trial court with the option of imposing consecutive or concurrent sentences.
Chief Justice Nathan B. Coats, writing for the Supreme Court, noted that trial courts have the discretion to impose either type of sentence unless the law prescribes one or the other. Colorado law contains competing provisions for treatment of violent crimes from a single incident. However, the court determined that the provision requiring concurrent sentencing was actually more restrictive than the text suggests.
While acknowledging that the high court previously did not fully describe what comprised an “act” in the context of separate crimes, Coats explained that “an offense defined in terms of committing an act causing harm to another person can never be supported by proof that the defendant committed an act causing harm to a different person.”
Coats referenced a 2017 case in which the court ordered concurrent sentences from a vehicle crash in which the perpetrator initially received consecutive sentences for the death of the driver, arising from multiple charges based on identical evidence of her murder. However, in that same case, the court did not alter a separate consecutive sentence for the death of the vehicle’s passenger.
Deeming it “sufficiently clear from the common understanding of the terms themselves” that a crime can have more than one victim and, therefore, more than one sentence served, Coats wrote that for crimes involving mass casualties, it would be “difficult...to imagine that the legislature intended for a defendant convicted of causing the death of many people to be punished no more harshly than a defendant convicted of causing the death of a single person.”
The opinion concluded that the 10 charges against Espinoza “were not, and in fact could not have been, supported by identical evidence,” and consequently reversed the appellate court’s ruling.
The case is The People of the State of Colorado v. Martin Castruita Espinoza.