About 15 people packed into the Pitkin County District courtroom Monday afternoon for the much-anticipated sentencing hearing of Brolin McConnell, 33, who in December pleaded guilty to class 3 felony attempted first-degree kidnapping — but due to United Airlines having to reroute McConnell’s attorney back to Denver because of inclement weather, the sentencing was rescheduled for March.
Denver-based Stephen Burstein, of Springer & Steinberg, appeared by telephone on behalf of his client and to explain the extenuating circumstances to Judge Chris Seldin.
But it wasn’t just Burstein’s whose travel became a sticking point in how best to proceed. One of McConnell’s victims had flown to Colorado from Hawaii in order to give his statement.
“These sorts of circumstances are unfortunate. We have quite a lot of people in the courtroom who have come here for the sentencing today,” Seldin said, adding that such travel impossibilities are a reality for the area. “I do believe it’s appropriate for the defendant to have his counsel here with him, personally. It’s not really feasible for an attorney who appears by phone to consult with his client during a sentencing hearing … so I do find good cause to reschedule the sentencing in light of the fact that Mr. Burstein’s flight couldn’t land due to no fault of his own.”
However, the victim who had flown from Hawaii had done so at the District Attorney’s Office’s expense.
“I hate to bring this up; my office is a total of 14 employees … that might run up my entire budget for the year,” Deputy District Attorney Don Nottingham told Seldin, adding that the year had barely begun. “And, to be clear, he would not have been able to come but for us being able to do that, and given this case, is certainly appropriate.”
In order to ensure everyone — both the victim and the defendant — were fairly represented, all the parties agreed to compromise: the sentencing would be rescheduled so that McConnell could have his counsel present, but the victim who had traveled halfway across the Pacific to have his voice heard would indeed speak Monday.
“We could hear from [that victim] today … then take up the rest of the sentencing hearing another day in light of the logistical predicament we find ourselves in,” Seldin suggested.
That victim was one of three victims that McConnell took hostage at gunpoint on Lincoln Creek Road in July 2016, but it was that victim at whose head McConnell shot that day.
It’s a day he still relives daily, he told the court after taking several audible breaths to compose himself.
“‘Please don’t shoot, please don’t shoot, please don’t shoot, I’m not ready to die.’ I see this play over and over again in my head every single day. This was the moment right as the second shot went right by my head; the moment I thought I was dead,” he started. “On this day, my life changed forever.”
He described himself, prior to his run-in with McConnell, as a happy-go-lucky young man from Hawaii who’d moved to Colorado to chase outdoor adventures in a natural playground different from his home island state. Since that day more than three years ago, however, he’s still suffering from the trauma incurred.
“I’m no longer able to go anywhere without … this playing in my head,” he said through tears. “It’s like I’m still there, like I never left that road on Independence Pass. Like my life is still being held in this man’s hands.”
Before pleading guilty to felony attempted kidnapping and class 5 felony menacing, McConnell’s most recent plea was not guilty by reason of insanity in December 2017, and he sought a second mental health evaluation after the state in February of last year found him sane and competent to stand trial. The Colorado Springs realtor has been in custody at the Pitkin County Jail since July 27, 2016 on a $500,000 bond.
But the victim who spoke in court Monday did not describe a man suffering insanity.
“Imagine seeing Brolin McConnell threatening to kill you, and smiling while doing so,” he said. “Brolin McConnell was clearly on a mission to kill someone that day, and that person was me. He chose to laugh at my pain; he was entertained by it. He appeared very aware of what he was doing.”
He continued to detail his recollections of the police arriving and him begging for his life — both to McConnell and the responding officers.
“Everything went black for a moment, ear bleeding. I thought I was dead,” the victim continued. “And I see this day, all the time. All the time.”
By this point in his statement, the victim was actively crying, his sentences punctuated by choked-back sobs. McConnell faces between eight and 20 years in the Department of Corrections, per his plea agreement. The victim didn’t hold back in describing the fear he still feels at the prospect of McConnell being released from custody.
“What’s to say he won’t feel this way … whatever years from now, get out of jail, come after me once again. We offered him everything. He could have stolen the car; he could have had anything. Instead, he held me hostage and threatened to kill me,” he said.
As for his wish for McConnell’s sentence?
“Forever is the honest answer, but I know that’s not the case, unfortunately,” the victim said, still visibly emotional. “I ask that you sentence him to the max prison sentence possible.”
Seldin thanked the victim for his statement and scheduled the “balance of the hearing” for March 2.