Today we'll take a glimpse inside our legal system, a fine network of laws used by prosecutors to ensure that you, as a resident of Colorado, have something to entertain you until the carnival comes back to town.
Footnote: If that analogy is in any way offensive or casts dispersion upon some in this group of highly trained professionals, I hereby apologize -- especially to the bearded woman and the person who guesses your weight.
At issue is the case of Nathan Baird, a skinny, quiet, somewhat naive computer technician and all-around law-abiding guy (his friends made fun of him because on big nights out at a local pool hall he would only drink water) who found himself two years ago driving from our village to Chicago.
Baird thought it would be nothing more than a fun-filled road trip.
It became a trip to hell, as told in a story published in the Jan. 20 Independent (if you missed it you can read it online at www.csindy.com).
Baird's passenger on the drive was Jesse Kaufman, a hulking Fort Carson soldier who had a sick fascination with knives. The soldier was the boyfriend of a woman who rented a room in Baird's house. He and Baird had met only a few times.
So when Kaufman asked Baird if he wanted to take a drive to Chicago to hang out with some of the soldier's friends, Baird -- who was 23 and had a few days off from work -- jumped at the chance.
When they got to Chicago, Kaufman made a chilling announcement: a day earlier, just hours before he suggested the road trip to Baird, he'd attacked two men with a knife outside a downtown Colorado Springs bar. One of the victims died.
Baird panicked. Kaufman ordered him back into Baird's car. He wanted to go to Canada. Baird called his mother and tried to tell her what was going on. Kaufman glared at him, took out a knife and made a slashing motion across his own throat.
Baird, terrified, talked Kaufman out of fleeing to Canada. Instead, Baird drove Kaufman to Florida, where Baird's father lived. Police were tipped off and Kaufman was arrested. He was later convicted of first-degree murder and was sentenced to life in prison.
"I never tried to help Jesse get away," Baird said. "I just wanted to be in a safe position with my dad or somebody who would help me. I figured Jesse was going to kill me, too."
Looking at 12 years
Stunningly, then-El Paso County District Attorney Jeanne Smith charged Baird with accessory to first-degree murder and accessory to attempted first-degree murder. Baird, who got the killer arrested, was looking at the possibility of 12 years in state prison.
For two years the case dragged on. Baird lost his job and was unable to find another.
"I couldn't pass any background checks because of the case," Baird said this week. "They'd see the arrest record and, well, nobody would hire me. An employment service told me I was unemployable."
Baird figures he forfeited about $100,000 in lost wages.
This January, Smith left office and was replaced by District Attorney John Newsome. He determined the case against Baird was weak and last week offered Baird a deal: plead guilty to a Class 3 misdemeanor and the felony charges would be dropped.
"They gave us a list of Class 3 misdemeanors and said 'pick one,'" Baird said.
His attorney, former Pueblo District Attorney Joe Losavio, confirmed Baird's story.
"They said, 'Plead guilty to a Class 3 misdemeanor and we don't care what it is,'" Losavio said. "They suggested [a charge of] false reporting to authorities, but we didn't care for the sound of that. So they said again, 'Well, just pick any Class 3 misdemeanor.'"
Losavio looked over the list and settled on a little-known charge, Colorado law 18-8-108, known as "compounding." It is defined as "accepting or agreeing to accept any pecuniary benefit" in return for not reporting a crime.
Baird, of course, did not receive any "benefit" from the ordeal with the killer. But he was allowed to plead guilty to the obscure charge. How obscure? At Baird's settlement hearing last week, 4th Judicial District Judge David Shakes said he'd never heard of "compounding."
Baird was given a year of unsupervised probation, a $250 fine and 50 hours of community service.
"At no point did we have any indication from anyone, including Nathan, that he was threatened by Jesse Kaufman until the newspaper story appeared," Newsome said. "We had not heard that part of the story until we read it in the Independent."
Baird said ex-District Attorney Smith never allowed him to tell his story.
Today, Baird is trying to put his life and his computer career back together. A civil suit he had filed against the district attorney's office and others was dismissed a few weeks ago in federal court. It's nearly impossible, he was told, to sue a district attorney's office.
"Pleading guilty to the misdemeanor wasn't right," Baird said. "I turned in a killer and kept myself alive. But with all that I've learned about our judicial system and how it really works, I wasn't willing to go to trial and take that chance."
Oh, by the way, during his four-day cross-country odyssey, Baird weighed 140 pounds. Kaufman, who held a knife during most of the drive, weighed about 220 pounds.
I bet ex-District Attorney Smith could have guessed both men's weights, if she would have tried.
-- Listen to Rich Tosches Thursday mornings on the "Coffey and Alisha Show" on KVUU-FM, 99.9.