George Brauchler, the Republican district attorney for the 18th Judicial District, said Friday night he believes Gov. John Hickenlooper broke the law when he granted a pardon to Rene Lima-Marin, a 38-year-old Aurora man who faces deportation to his native Cuba after a judge freed him earlier this week from a Colorado prison.
“The governor has violated state law by granting this pardon. That could mean it’s an invalid pardon,” Brauchler told The Colorado Statesman just hours after Hickenlooper announced at a news conference that he had pardoned Lima-Marin, who was sent to prison for 98 years by Brauchler’s predecessor.
Brauchler is a candidate for the Republican nomination for governor in next year’s election, when Hickenlooper, a Democrat, faces term limits. He’s the chief prosecutor for Arapahoe, Douglas, Elbert and Lincoln counties and is serving his second term as district attorney.
Sounding exasperated, Brauchler listed several statutory requirements he said a governor must meet before granting a pardon, insisting Hickenlooper had skipped nearly all of them.
“There must be an application for a pardon, and that application must be provided by the governor’s office to the current district attorney, the prosecutor who initially prosecuted the applicant, and the sentencing judge,” Brauchler said. “We never, ever received an application for a pardon. Never.”
Brauchler acknowledged Lima-Marin had filed an application for a commutation of his sentence, and his office had provided input on that to the governor’s office earlier this week.
“But a commutation of sentence is very different from a pardon,” he said. “We never had the victims consulted about a pardon. We never had input with the governor about a pardon. I was caught completely unaware the governor was considering a pardon.”
Brauchler said he only found out the governor had issued a pardon when someone sent him a question about it on Twitter, late on Friday afternoon.
“I presume the victims in this case also found out through social media and through the news,” he said. “Two of the victims decried the notion of a commutation — one said it took two years to be able to fall asleep normally after being robbed by Rene Lima-Marin.”
After a brief pause, Brauchler continued. “Those people never got the face-to-face meeting with the governor that the wife of Rene Lima-Marin got.”
A spokeswoman for the governor said late Friday she was aware of Brauchler’s arguments but didn’t have an immediate comment.
While the state constitution gives Colorado’s governor nearly limitless authority to grant reprieves, clemency and pardons — except in cases of treason — Brauchler said that doesn’t mean a governor can ignore the statutory requirements. He pointed to a state appeals court decision that ruled a 1978 pardon invalid because it hadn’t been issued in accordance with state law and the established procedures.
On the governor’s own application for a pardon, Brauchler said, it states, “Seven years must have elapsed since completion of sentence” before a felon is even eligible to apply.
“In this case,” Brauchler said, “it wasn’t even seven days since he’d been released from custody.”
State Sen. Owen Hill, a Colorado Springs Republican who sponsored legislation last month calling on Hickenlooper to grant clemency to Lima-Marin — the Legislature approved the resolution unanimously — dismissed Brauchler’s complaints.
“Reuniting Rene with his family is the right thing to do for him, his wife and his children,” Hill told The Statesman Friday night.
The other Senate sponsor of the clemency request, state Sen. Dominick Moreno, a Commerce City Democrat, agreed with his Senate colleague.
“The governor’s authority to pardon Mr. Lima-Marin is pretty clear from my point of view,” Moreno said. “After all he has endured, justice shouldn’t be denied or delayed because of mere process concerns.”
In 2000, Lima-Marin was sentenced on multiple counts for his role in a pair of video store robberies in Aurora. Mistakenly released decades early in 2008, Lima-Marin was thrown back in prison six years later after he’d found work, got married and started a family — “He rebuilt his life, he’s become a law-abiding, productive member of his community,” Hickenlooper said Friday — only to be ordered released this week by a judge who called his re-incarceration “a manifest injustice.”
Instead of freeing Lima-Marin, however, authorities turned him over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, who said they plan to deport him to Cuba because he violated the terms of his lawful-permanent resident status when he committed the crimes that landed him in prison. (An ICE spokesman said authorities detained Lima-Marin for three months following his 2008 release from prison but were unable to deport him because the United States and Cuba didn’t have diplomatic relations, but those were restored at the beginning of 2017 by the Obama administration, making deportation possible.)
While Hickenlooper stressed that he had no authority to stop immigration officials from deporting Lima-Marin, his immigration attorney and a bipartisan group of lawmakers had urged the governor on Thursday to grant a pardon quickly in hopes that would leave ICE without a reason to deport him.
State Rep. Joe Salazar, a Thornton Democrat and a candidate for attorney general in next year’s election, sounded like he had little use for Brauchler’s complaints in a text message sent to The Statesman on Friday night.
“I guess my question is, why does he care or why is he getting involved? Seems to me that once the judge freed Lima-Marin, Brauchler became irrelevant,” said Salazar, a sponsor of the resolution seeking clemency from Hickenlooper.
“While Brauchler may want to play the opportunist by using the Lima-Marin case as a platform for his gubernatorial run, maybe he should consider how this makes him look like the stereotypical shallow politician,” he added.
The clemency resolution’s other sponsor in the House, state Rep. Dave Williams, a Colorado Springs Republican, didn’t respond to a request for comment on Brauchler’s charges.
It was Hickenlooper’s rush to pardon Lima-Marin — ICE officials have said they’re expediting his deportation — that could have led the governor to cut so many corners and wind up so far out of compliance with the law, Brauchler said.
“There is a way to do it without violating the law,” he said.
Brauchler said Hickenlooper has a stack of pardons and sentence commutations that have been approved by the governor’s Executive Clemency Advisory Board but has taken no action on them.
“Where are they?” Brauchler asked. “They all complied with the law.”
Including Friday’s pardon, Hickenlooper has only used his clemency power twice in the more than six years he’s held office, in sharp contrast to the Democratic and Republican governors who preceded him in office.
Hickenlooper’s immediate predecessor, Democrat Bill Ritter, a former district attorney, pardoned 42 convicts during the single term he served as governor. Republican Bill Owens issued 13 pardons during his eight years in office, while Democrat Roy Romer pardoned more than 50 people over the 12 years he was governor. Democrat Dick Lamm, who also served a dozen years over three terms, granted more than 150 pardons.
While Hickenlooper’s executive order Friday was the first pardon he’s issued since taking office in 2011, it wasn’t the first time Brauchler and Hickenlooper have sparred over the governor’s exercise of his power to grant clemency.
“This is not justice,” said a furious Brauchler moments after Hickenlooper issued a temporary reprieve that stayed the scheduled 2013 execution of death row inmate Nathan Dunlap, convicted by Brauchler’s predecessor of killing four people in 1993 inside an Aurora Chuck E. Cheese’s restaurant.
Brauchler’s scathing criticism of Hickenlooper and his extraordinary clemency decision — effectively putting Dunlap’s execution on hold while Hickenlooper is governor, although he has said he might issuing a permanent order before leaving office — thrust the newly elected prosecutor into the spotlight as a potential gubernatorial candidate in 2014, a race Brauchler said he considered but ultimately decided against.
On Friday, Brauchler said both of the clemency orders Hickenlooper has issued — the temporary reprieve for Dunlap and the pardon of Lima-Marin — have something in common.
“It’s interesting about each of those,” he said. “They’re the only ones that didn’t go through the normal pardon and clemency process.”