Colorado court overturns murder conviction due to errors | Courts

Colorado’s second-highest court last month ordered a new trial for a woman convicted of murder in El Paso County, finding that multiple errors that were not individually prejudicial compromised the fairness of her trial when taken together.

A serious murder does not necessarily require that the victim be killed. However, a defendant may be convicted of aggravated murder when he or she participates in certain serious crimes, such as robbery or sexual assault, and a person dies as a result of those acts.

Jurors convicted Vanessa Jeanette Taylor of murder in 2021 based on a multilayered theory: Taylor intended to help Kyree Howard-Walker rob a Colorado Springs tobacco store, Howard-Walker actually robbed the tobacco store, and her killing of employee Benjamin Nandin made Taylor responsible for the murder.

Taylor’s actions, which included driving Howard-Walker to and from the scene of the robbery, carried a possible life sentence under the law in force at the time.

Howard-Walker was not tried, having killed himself during a confrontation with police weeks after allegedly killing Nandin and carrying out another shooting and carjacking.

On appeal, Taylor raised multiple allegations of error, ranging from police questioning without a Miranda warning and without sufficient evidence to prosecutorial misconduct.

“We recognize that the evidence of Taylor’s intent is thin,” Judge David H. Yun wrote for a three-judge panel of the appeals court, concluding that the information presented to the jury could nonetheless support a guilty verdict.

However, the jury found Taylor correct on three errors that affected his trial.


FILE PHOTO: The Ralph L. Carr Colorado Judicial Center in downtown Denver is home to the Colorado Supreme Court and Court of Appeals.

First, the jury heard that Taylor told a detective that she had driven Howard-Walker and his girlfriend to Denver and back between the tobacco store robbery and Howard-Walker’s death. Taylor admitted that she knew police were looking for Howard-Walker, but she didn’t know why.

“She’s part of a voluntary process to move him to where he needs to go,” the unnamed prosecutor told jurors. “And it doesn’t matter to her whether it’s legal or not.”

Taylor argued that the evidence of her conduct, which was not part of the robbery, served only to suggest she was a “bad” person who “knowingly helps criminals get away.”

The appeals jury agreed that jurors should not have heard this information because of its unnecessary reflection on Taylor’s character.

Second, District Court Judge David Shakes instructed jurors on how to convict Taylor of murder under the theory that she was an accomplice to the tobacco store robbery. However, the instructions specified that jurors should conclude that Taylor intended to help Howard-Walker commit “this crime” — which the instructions characterized as murder, not robbery.

The instruction “did not instruct the jury on complicity in the robbery. Instead, the instruction required the jury to find that the victim had the desire, intent or plan to assist Howard-Walker in committing aggravated murder,” Yun wrote in his June 27 opinion. “This was a clear instructional error.”

Grant Sullivan's inauguration (cp print)

Members of the Colorado Court of Appeals gather during the formal swearing-in of Judge Grant T. Sullivan on June 7.

Finally, Taylor argued that the prosecution made numerous inappropriate comments during its closing argument. Although the appeals panel found most of the challenged statements to be appropriate, it flagged one for misconduct.

Howard-Walker was “desperate to escape, and the first and only thing he knows to do is contact Bonnie and her Clyde, Vanessa Taylor, and that’s what he does,” the prosecutor said.

“Not only were these insults,” defense attorney Chelsea E. Mowrer argued, “but also, by comparing them to Bonnie and Clyde, the prosecutor suggested that the two, like Bonnie and Clyde, had committed other crimes together.”

The appeals court agreed that it was wrong for the prosecutor to compare Howard-Walker and Taylor to the “infamous criminal duo”, but noted that the defence had not objected at the time.

Individually, Yun wrote, the errors do not merit a new trial. However, the appeals court unusually relied on the theory of “cumulative error” to conclude that the irregularities all targeted the jury’s understanding of Taylor’s intent to help Howard-Walker commit the robbery.

Confusing jury instructions, character-incriminating evidence and the prosecutor’s suggestion that Howard-Walker and Taylor had criminal histories could have influenced the outcome, the panel concluded.

“We disagree with the prosecution that the evidence in this case was overwhelming,” Yun wrote for himself and Judge Craig R. Welling. “Particularly with respect to the element of intent, this was a close case. Throughout his interviews by police, Taylor repeatedly and adamantly denied any knowledge of Howard-Walker’s plans to rob the head shop.”

Judge Katharine E. Lum wrote separately that she agreed with the majority’s decision to grant Taylor a new trial. However, she would have reached the same conclusion based solely on the poorly worded jury instructions.

“Without any indication in the record as to the jury’s thought process, we do not and cannot know how it interpreted” the instruction, Lum wrote.

The case is The People v. Taylor.