In a move District Attorney Dave Young described as “rare,” the top prosecutor for Adams County has offered a new plea deal to Giselle Gutierrez-Ruiz, who was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole nearly two decades ago as a teenager. Gutierrez-Ruiz, now 36, signed the agreement Monday morning at the Limon Correctional Facility; he will be resentenced at a court hearing, likely in the fall, and could be released from prison as early as the end of the year.
Gutierrez-Ruiz was convicted of first-degree murder in 1998 for his involvement in a shooting on the highway near the interchange of I-25 and I-76. He was driving his brother’s car when a man in the passenger seat pulled a gun and shot at vehicles on the road, resulting in the death of Rumaldo Castillo-Hernandez. (Gutierrez-Ruiz told police he had no idea the passenger—someone he barely knew—had a gun or that anyone had been injured.) At the time, Gutierrez-Ruiz’s conviction under Colorado’s complicity statute came with a steep mandatory prison sentence: life without parole. Since then, several developments in the case led Young to agree to take another look.
In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that giving a juvenile a mandatory life sentence with no chance for parole violated the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. (The court stated that juveniles had a right to individualized sentences that considered their “youth and attendant characteristics.”) More recently—as detailed in 5280’s January story about the case, titled “Still Life”—Gutierrez-Ruiz’s defense attorney, Ashley Ratliff, raised questions about the competency of her client’s trial lawyers. “Every single attorney that touched this case from 1997 until 2011 utterly failed Giselle and the criminal justice system,” Ratliff says. Young cited these two factors in particular as reasons for re-examining the case.
After months of review, Young, who met with Gutierrez-Ruiz at Limon and also spoke with Castillo-Hernandez’s widow, drafted a new plea agreement. The deal requires Gutierrez-Ruiz to plead guilty to second-degree murder and felony menacing; second-degree murder carries a sentencing range of 16 to 48 years, and menacing has a range of one to six years. An Adams County judge will determine a number within that range after the hearing. (The two sentences can be served concurrently.) “I think the offer I’ve made,” Young says, “represents justice being served.”
Ratliff is pleased with the new developments in Gutierrez-Ruiz’s case. “For many months since we began our conversations with Mr. Young, I have trusted that he would take a close look at the case and see something needs to be done now,” Ratliff says. “This agreement opens the door for Giselle’s case to be heard in a meaningful fashion.” In addition to Gutierrez-Ruiz, there are 47 others in Colorado who received mandatory life without parole sentences for crimes committed between 1990 and 2006, and Ratliff believes this advancement could aid other cases. “I truly hope that these developments provide hope for others and paths for others to explore as their attorneys and advocates dig deeply into these cases,” Ratliff says.
As for Gutierrez-Ruiz, he’s already been in prison nearly 19 years, during which time he’s taught himself English and become a painter, decorating prison hallways with elaborate murals. He’s also donated proceeds from a summer 2015 show that Ratliff helped arrange in the Art District on Santa Fe to Children’s Hospital Colorado. If the judge determines Gutierrez-Ruiz’s new sentence should be anything less than what he’s already served, he would be released immediately. “I believe the court will do the right thing because Giselle has been seriously punished for his involvement in the events of October 1997,” Ratliff says. “It’s time to send Giselle home.”
For more on the story of Giselle Gutierrez-Ruiz, read “Still Life,” 5280’s in-depth look at the case, published this past January.