JEFFERSON COUNTY, Colorado — The worsening COVID-19 pandemic led a judge in Jefferson County to again delay the proceedings in the case of a man accused of four brutal hammer murders in the Denver area in January 1984.
Alex Christopher Ewing, 60, faces first-degree murder charges in the Jan. 10, 1984, rape and murder of Patricia Louise Smith in Lakewood.
He had been scheduled to be arraigned in that case Friday morning – the step in the process where he would enter a plea – but District Judge Tamara Russell granted a defense motion to delay it indefinitely amid concerns about the pandemic.
Ewing also faces first-degree murder charges in the murders of Bruce and Debra Bennett and their daughter, Melissa, in Aurora six days after Smith’s killing.
He was behind bars in Nevada when a 2018 DNA hit identified him as a suspect in both cases.
In Friday’s hearing, Judge Russell said that three people who work in the Jefferson County courthouse had tested positive and, as a result, a total of 14 workers were quarantined and working from home.
Katherine Spengler, a public defender representing Ewing, filed an emergency motion after business hours Thursday attempting to stop Friday’s hearing – but it was too late for Russell to take action. Then in court Friday, Spengler argued that the arraignment should be delayed.
An arraignment is a critical step in a criminal case – once that occurs, it starts the clock running on a defendant’s right to a speedy trial. Once a defendant enters a plea, prosecutors have six months to take the case to trial.
Spengler noted that the pandemic is responsible for more than 1,000 deaths a day across the country.
“That’s like waking up and learning that two airliners have gone down every day in the United States,” she said.
She said that with the many unknowns about the virus there was no way to predict whether a trial could occur next spring.
“We’ve urged restraint moving forward,” Spengler said.
Prosecutor Robert Weiner expressed frustration at the prospect of another delay in a case that’s already had several of them.
“There’s no reason to continue this yet again out of what amounts to as yet a guess,” he said.
But Judge Russell noted that prosecutors have a seven-page witness list – and that new restrictions have been ordered that will limit her courtroom to 10 people.
“I just can’t fathom how we can move forward with the restrictions in place this coming Monday with a trial of this nature,” Russell said. “It just doesn’t seem possible.”
The judge scheduled a status hearing Dec. 10. It’s possible a new arraignment date could be set then.
In the meantime, he is scheduled to appear in an Arapahoe County courtroom Nov. 16 in the Bennett case.
Ewing had been convicted of attempted murder and other charges after an attack in Nevada that also occurred in 1984, seven months after the Colorado slayings.
He faces four separate counts of first-degree murder in the attack on Smith, a 50-year-old interior decorator who was raped and beaten to death with an auto-body hammer in the Lakewood townhome she shared with her daughter and grandchildren.
One murder count alleges he killed Smith after deliberation; the other three allege he killed her in the commission of another felony – robbery, burglary, and sexual assault.
In Arapahoe County, Ewing faces six counts of first-degree murder in the Bennett killings, one for each of the victims alleging he killed them after deliberation and one for each of the victims alleging he killed them while committing another felony.
Although the murder weapon wasn’t found, a coroner concluded a claw hammer was used in the attack, which left the couple’s other daughter, Vanessa, critically injured.
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