SLOAN | Justice system gets it right, again, in Blagg case

Author: Kelly Sloan - April 18, 2018 - Updated: April 18, 2018



Kelly Sloan

Earlier this month, Michael Blagg was convicted, for a second time, of the murder of his wife Jennifer. Their infant daughter Abby remains missing. News of this sort serves to concentrate the mind on matters of criminal justice, and the natural tendency is to focus on the system’s problems; but it also seems fitting on such occasions to reflect on how, in spite of everything, the people who comprise the system still manage to get the job done.

There can be little argument that there are elements of the criminal justice system that cry out for improvement. It is disappointing, tragic even, that Colorado cannot seem to find a way to enact the death penalty still officially on its books, even in a case such as this. The abolitionists’ arguments tend to ring hollow when confronted with the gruesome reality of violent crime, especially when done on the most innocent, combined with unmistakable guilt of the offender. And yet, in Colorado, few places are as conducive to longevity as death row; the ultimate penalty is so unlikely to be carried out here that one wonders if some insurance company might offer a special discounted term life package to the three condemned.

It is not only the state’s unwillingness to execute the most executable that causes consternation. Absolutist interpretations of 4thand 5thamendments have long been seen by many as a crucial impediment to justice. Blagg’s retrial was necessitated by the discovery that a juror in the original trial had perjured herself – which came to light years later as the juror in question participated in a political stunt in Grand Junction – and for the most part did not yield the type of legal mischief that excludes evidence for the faintest hint of any technical violation of the accused’s rights. But the simple fact that anyone watching the proceedings knew, in the back of their minds, that there existed a very real possibility that a very guilty man could be set loose, illustrates the nagging problem floating around in our justice system.

The obsession with immaculate application of these two amendments has led us as a society down a far different path from the one envisioned by the framers, one that contemplates criminal justice as a means to bring justice to criminals, while simultaneously providing for a fair trial. The central question is no longer “did he or she do it?”; it is now “Was any accommodation, however minor, not made towards the safeguarding of the accused’s rights?” This is not an unimportant distinction.

It is curious that the majority of people who hold that sort of absolutist approach are discriminate in its application; few, for instance, insist on the same rigor in observation of the 2nd amendment, or the free speech and religious practice provisions of the first.

…(I)n Colorado, few places are as conducive to longevity as death row; the ultimate penalty is so unlikely to be carried out here that one wonders if some insurance company might offer a special discounted term life package to the three condemned.

No right, of course, is absolute; and the inflexibility afforded the police in many instances has done nothing in terms of keeping our streets safe, nor indeed of maintaining the rights of the victim and the non-criminal.

This is not an indictment of due process, which is as important to the maintenance of our democracy as free elections. But we ought to permit ourselves as a society to periodically take an objective look at what problems we are trying to solve and reorient ourselves to the reality that the operative word in the fourth amendment’s protection against unreasonable search and seizure is “unreasonable”. Instead, that word can more aptly be used to describe the provision’s application.

And yet, within this difficult paradigm, professionals in the various law enforcement agencies and district attorney’s offices around the state still get the job done. Surely these men and women are doing the Lord’s work.

This time, it’s the deputy’s and investigators of the Mesa County Sheriff’s Office, the professionals at the CBI, and the able prosecutors of the 21stJudicial District in Mesa County – Trish Mahre and Mark Hand, and their exceptional boss Dan Rubinstein – who all ought to be inordinately proud of themselves.

There is an eschatological side to all this. Upon hearing the welcome news of the reconviction I reached out to Steve King, one of the lead investigators on the case, whom I happen to know quite well. I colloquially lamented on what a shame it was that a more appropriate penalty was not available. His response was poetically blunt: “He will have a miserable life, then will face his maker. Abby will be sitting in God’s lap and Jennifer will standing next to them… then there will be hell to pay.”

Just so.


Kelly Sloan

Kelly Sloan

Kelly Sloan is a political and public affairs consultant and recovering journalist based in Denver. He is also an energy and environmental policy fellow at Centennial Institute.