Murder in a Small Town

Winner

Denver Women's Press Club

Nonfiction Award

 

On January 18th, 1996, Raymond Cain was sentenced to life in prison for the murder of Sadie Frost. Cain was one day shy of his 18th birthday.

Ray murdered Sadie Frost in cold blood. A .22 caliber bullet shattered her skull and ripped through her brain. What Ray did to Sadie's friend Shawnda was worse. He pumped two bullets into Shawnda's head next, but somehow didn't manage to kill her.

Shawnda was discovered sitting in the front seat of a white Toyota Tercel, the passenger door hanging open, next to Sadie Frost's cold and lifeless body. The temperature that night was below freezing. Ironically, the freezing cold is probably what saved Shawnda's life. What's left of it, that is.

Gang-style murder-robberies were supposed to be something that happened in L.A. Not in Colorado ski towns.

I was in the courtroom during closing arguments.

The defendent was led in. With a haircut and a clean shirt, Raymond Cain looked like a schoolkid.

I'm sure in grunge clothing, beer in one hand, Smith&Wesson in the other, Ray was as mean a gang-banger as Durango had ever seen. Defense counsel objected when District Attorney Greg Lyman referred to the accused as a "Predator." Today Ray was a 17 year old baby-faced kid on trial for murder.

"What's the matter here!" I wanted to scream.

Ray's accomplice Gabe Rivera, had already been convicted. He refused to testify against Ray, thereby adding 6 months jail time for contempt of court onto what was already a life sentence. Gabe had been convicted of felony murder, that is, the participation in a crime, any crime, in which a murder takes place.

There is a six part defense for felony murder. Basically, you must have not known a murder was likely to occur, you must have disengaged yourself from the crime upon learning another participant was armed with a deadly weapon, and have not aided, importuned or requested commission of the homicidal act. If one tine on the six-pronged fork is missing, you're guilty. Gabe was missing several tines. Ray was missing the whole set. All the evidence indicated he was the shooter.

"What went wrong," I wondered, not with Ray, but with his family, his friends, his teachers, his neighbors, his church, his community, hell, with all of Durango. I wanted to know how a 17 year old kid can decide to murder a pair of Indian women in order to rob them of a measly $3000, tribal money they had received on their 18th birthdays.

Did Ray think he'd get away with it because he was careful not to leave any fingerprints, like he had on his previous crimes? Who or what tells someone like Ray that "getting away" with a crime, being "clever" enough not to get caught, somehow makes it OK?

Ray was definitely mis-wired. He later claimed he'd experienced "The greatest rush imaginable -- killing someone."

Who was to blame?

It takes an entire community to raise a child. Well, who the hell raised Ray? Who had been Ray's examples and role models in life? Was Ray's family to blame? The Cains weren't exactly pillars of the community. Where was the older kid up the street who might have invited Ray up to a fraternity party at CU, thereby instilling in him a desire to finish high school and go to college instead of roaming the streets of Durango at night in search of alcohol and methamphetamine. Where was the lone teacher who had somehow reached Ray, and inspired in him a love of chemistry or some other subject? Where was the grandfather who might have taught Ray the joy of fixing old cars or fly fishing. Were there no brothers, or cousins, or uncles watching out for him?

What happened to the "Thou shalt nots" drilled into most of us in Sunday school? Had drugs silenced Ray's conscience forever? It appeared the only thing Ray enjoyed, or knew how to do in life wasto bring hell into the lives of everyone who came in contact with him.

Perhaps Ray alone was to blame. Wasn't pleading innocent proof Ray was never going to take responsibility for his actions? He'd been on the highway to hell for several years, a downward spiral of ever more violent and serious crimes. His squeezing of the trigger three or four times in quick succession had brutally rebuffed everyone in the community who had ever tried to guide him back to a straighter or narrower path.

 

Ray had now used up all his second chances.

 

Slouched down in his chair, Ray looked limp, impotent. The high ceilinged courtroom was quiet. I glanced at the jury box, wondering what sort of folk would seal his fate. Were the people who were going to sit there ordinary and decent? Did they have the moral courage to convict someone of first degree murder, especially someone this young and innocent looking?

Ray sat a table marked "Defendant," directly behind him sat the Courthouse Deputy who had led him in. Greg Lyman, the La Plata County District Attorney, all six foot two of him, sat at an adjacent table fidgeting with his hands, doing spider pushups, until Guillermo Garibay, one of Ray's court appointed lawyerss walked up to ask some minor question about moving a flipchart board both sides were sharing. The Deputy leaned back against the oak wall as if to nap. The judge poked his head in, and asked Counsel to meet him in chambers.

The courtroom had benches harder and straighter than any church pews I'd ever sat in. In the first row sat the Durango Herald's reporter. Behind her, the families of the victims, relatives, Shawnda Baker and her family. Shawnda would never be able to recall much of that fateful evening, other than "falling asleep," her family's euphemism for the "event." Behind them were the grandparents of one of the witnesses who had come to watch their grandchild testify, and stayed on. This case had made watching People's Court boring.

 In the extreme rear of the room sat Investigators Ezzell and Owens, Ezzel from the Sherriff's office, Owens from the DA's. They weren't jovial, but neither were they as somber as the rest of the occupants of the room. Their investigations and evidence had given the DA a solid case. Settling over the courtroom was a silence, a calm before the storm of closing arguments.

 

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Ray sat alone, unshackled. He could have bolted for the door and beat the deputy by a half-step or more. Why didn't he try? By now he had to know he was going to prison. His public defender hadn't put up much of a defense, no elaborate alibi or alternate explanation of that night's events, however implausable. The courtroom was on the second floor. Ray could have crashed out one of the courtroom windows, and landed in the bushes below, perhaps without breaking a leg. If Booth could do it, Ray could. It was definitely worth a try. I would have.

Cain sat there, replaying that night's events like a bad car crash. He hadn't been as clever as he'd thought. He'd gotten caught and now he was going to go to prison. The investigators hadn't figured out exactly the way everything had gone down, but they'd figured out enough. "If I had onlys" were running through his mind.

Silence. Hushed banter from the rear of the courtroom. Someone tearing apart Velcro. Over and over. Frank Cain, Ray's father, who had unsuccessfully run for sheriff of the neighboring county the year before mustered a little cough. Knuckles were cracked. People shifted in those impossibly rock-hard pews. A yawn. The deputy blinked and tried to figure out how he got assigned courtroom duty, and how he might avoid it in the future. More yawns. The reporter jiggled her feet. The sun began to shine through the 12 foot windows, each topped with an oak mantle and a Realistic PA speaker that must have been there since the '60s.

I took a moment to pray for Ray Cain. A guilty verdict on a charge of murder would mean society had decided, once and for all, he was beyond redemption. There's no coming back from a murder conviction. To survive in prison, he'd either have to get even more violent or he'd become someone's punk. He wasn't very big, physically.

The .22 shell casings disappeared from the physical evidence sometime after the Colorado Bureau of Investigations examined them. The defense had had their opportunity to examine them. Who knows, maybe they somehow caused them to dissapear. But a .22 revolver was supposedly used to commit the crime, and a revolver doesn't eject its spent casings until it's reloaded. Cain had only fired four shots, meaning no reload was necessary. One c casing was found under several weeks worth of snow, fifteen feet away from the Tercel, the other found near the driver's door. The casings found might or might not have been from the murder weapon, especially given the fact it was a revolver. It didn't look good that two casings were found at the scene where, at least in theory, there should have been none. And then lost.

According to Lyman, to obtain a murder conviction you need a murder weapon, evidence, a suspect, a witness, and a motive. Fail to produce any one of the five not so easy pieces and it becomes a lot harder to convince a jury. Especially if the charge is murder in the first degree.

There was a second gun mentioned, a .22 revolver kept in Gabe Rivera's father's pickup truck. Gabe supposedly wouldn't have had access to that. I didn't buy that. Gabe could have made copies of his father's keys anytime he'd used the truck.. To this day I wonder if that wasn't the murder weapon, although the ballistics tests on it and the bullets recovered from Sadie and Shawnda were inconclusive.

The biggest piece of bullshit offered by the defense was the $1000 cash one of Ray's uncles claims to have mailed him two days before the murder took place, thereby explaining Ray being out buying a $700 stereo the day after the murder/robbery. A surprise witness, this uncle had flown in from NY in the middle of the trial and "sprung" this piece of information on the court. No one bought it. Jury members rolled their eyes during the uncle's testimony.

Springing "surprise" witnesses into a criminal trial just isn't done. For starters, it's grounds for declaring a mistrial. All prospective witnesses are identified, interviewed, depositions taken and so forth before a trial begins. By both sides. A surprise witness brought in at the last moment is a desparation move which often does more harm than good, even though it temporarily throws the other side off balance. Garibay perhaps thought it might work here. He certainly didn't have much else to work with.

The day dragged on, with the jury dismissed first until 10:30, then 1 PM as both sides haggled over the dozens of pages of jury instructions, one entire set for each of the charges filed against Ray. They included first degree murder, conspiracy to commit first degree murder, attempted first degree murder, felony murder, conspiracy to commit armed robbery, and several lesser charges. Greg Lyman had thrown the book at Raymond Cain.

The jury was brought in at 1:05 and the judge began reading the painfully long instructions. Phrases like "did kill, maim or wound" and, "intention after deliberation" and "in the State of Colorado at or about the place charged, did commit murder" echoed again and again through the courtroom as the jury was read a full set of instructions for each and every charge. Monotony reigned. Jury instructions would prove to be critical years later, when one of Cain's co-conspirators would be granted a re-trial based on a claim of incomplete jury instructions having been read. Today, however, the task was staying awake.

Suddenly it became real, as if I had awoken from a daydream. This was a murder trial. Ray Cain was going to be found guilty or innocent in a few short hours. His life hung in the balance.

I sat behind Ray Cain's parents, and waited for him to look back as the judge droned on and on, reading the instructions. "Knowingly," "With Intent" "Beyond a reasonable doubt." What exactly do you see in the eyes of a murderer, I wondered.

He wasn't going to look back. I began to zone out again.

"Beyond a reasonable doubt." Those words caught my mind and snapped me to the present. What powerful words. Not "In all likelihood," or any other, lesser words. But "Beyond a reasonable doubt." The cornerstone of the American justice system rests on those four words: "Beyond a reasonable doubt." BARD. Those words ensure almost no one goes to prison who isn't 100%, certifiably, guilty. It's the hallmark of the American juidicial system.

Even a "reasonable" doubt is sufficient to let someone go free. Someone "Who in all probability" committed a crime. Like O.J. Simpson.

"The burden of proof falls on the prosecution. If you, the members of the jury are not convinced BARD then you MUST find the defendant innocent."

Did a reasonable doubt remain? Hadn't a preponderance of evidence and testimony shown that Ray Cain, was in fact, the shooter? In my mind, Ray's public defender had failed to cast even the dimmest glimmer of the shadow of a doubt necessary to get Ray off.

 Greg Lyman, DA, began his closing arguments: "January 21 1995 was judgment day for Sadie Frost and Shawnda Lynne Baker. Today is judgment day for Raymond Cain. The evidence is clear... I am asking you, the members of this jury, to harden your hearts against Raymond Cain, who sits before you today."

The jury deliberated for four and a half hours, then spoke. "We, the jury, unanimously find Raymond Cain guilty of felony murder."

 

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