A crisis of judgement
The lack of prosecutors with felony-level experience in the 9th Judicial District is causing a crisis that is being felt around the Western Slope. Since District Attorney Colleen Truden took office, several attorneys have resigned, leaving the DA’s office understaffed and inexperienced.At least three cases that had been lined up for felony trials have been plea-bargained to misdemeanors, and in one case, a trial simply wasn’t held at all.”(Defense attorneys) are riding this wave right now,” said attorney Sherry Caloia, who is planning a recall attempt of Truden.Martin Beeson, a former deputy district attorney who left for reasons similar to many others – Truden’s management style and people skills – said more cases are sprouting up that are not being brought to trial.”The felony cases are going down to misdemeanors, they’re being dismissed, and defendants are being given deferred judgment sentences when they’re not appropriate candidates,” he said. “This is from an administration that campaigned on getting tough with crime. They don’t have the manpower, or the experience or capabilities, to prosecute these felony cases.”Truden has ran into a host of controversies since she took office in January, ranging from paying her husband $6,000 for computer work while at the same time paying another company nearly $9,000 for similar tasks, to having the truthfulness of her statements to commissioners from two counties questioned.Attorneys are now questioning whether the justice system is being compromised.Before he resigned, Beeson said he had four felony jury trials scheduled for the month of May. His first was set for May 3-4.Samuel Johnston was charged with DUI while being a habitual traffic offender, a felony, meaning that if he was convicted, he would have lost his driver’s license for five years and may have went to prison. He pleaded guilty recently to driving while alcohol impaired, a lesser offense than DUI, Caloia said.Beeson, consulting his trial calendar at his home last night, said he remembered that case.”The defense attorney wanted a deferred judgment sentence. Neither Gretchen Larson nor I thought it was appropriate, given the defendant’s record,” he said.Larson is one of the five deputy district attorneys to resign under Truden. Beeson said Larson brought up the case in a weekly staff meeting with Truden and Assistant District Attorney Vince Felletter. “The general consensus was, no, a deferred judgment sentence is not proper. We’ll take this one to trial. That was fine with me; I was ready to go to trial,” he said. “I’ve heard they have kicked it down to a misdemeanor or they gave him the deferred judgment after all, after Vince and Colleen said no.”I think they did it because other than Vince, they don’t have anybody in the office that’s capable of handling a felony trial. I suspect that they’re so understaffed, especially with felony deputies, that they didn’t have anybody to try it.”Messages detailing this story that were left on the voice-mails of Truden and Felletter were not returned Tuesday. Caloia, who said she was in possession of several cases that have been or are being handled by the 9th Judicial District, confirmed Johnston received a lesser sentence.”Defense attorneys are counting on the (inexperience). I talk to the defense attorneys at random on various things. One defense attorney in particular told me this morning, ‘I’m just setting my stuff for trial. Why should I take a plea?'” she continued. “The lawyer said they’re continuing everything. There are so many mistakes that are being made as a result of the understaffing.”Asked for examples about inexperience hampering prosecution of cases, she said, “They can’t proceed toward a hearing because they didn’t coordinate with the victim or they didn’t coordinate with the cops or they don’t have the cops [present in the courtroom]. They don’t have enough time to make sure their underlying case preparation gets done, so they go to court and they want to continue the hearing that was scheduled.”The judges at some point aren’t going to continue these cases anymore.”Caloia also cited another one of Beeson’s cases in which the defendant pleaded guilty to misdemeanors recently, avoiding a trial. Both Caloia and Beeson also said the outcome was based in inexperience.This not the kind of crime-fighting Truden promised when she ran for district attorney, Caloia said.”When you go and you run as DA on a tough-on-crime stance, then you take a position with your people [that] you’re not going to give this guy a deal and you’re ready to go to trial, and everybody quits and all of a sudden everybody’s getting a deal that’s not consistent with who she’s representing herself to be,” she said.Caloia said these outcomes are a direct result of the resignations of deputy district attorneys and administrative staff, and the subsequent lack of experience.Both attorneys brought up the recent dismissal of a case by Felletter. They said he dismissed a bail bond violation charge in Grand Junction last week that he was assigned to as a special prosecutor. Beeson was the original special prosecutor, he said, adding that the trial was set for Tuesday and today.”I think that is also a reflection of the fact that they’re so understaffed here that they can’t do the special prosecutions,” she said. “[So] he just dumped it.””It appears to me that nobody in that office wants to try a felony case, and that includes Felletter,” Beeson said.”All these cases combined is a real big red flag that there’s a crisis in that office. (The cases) are all going by the boards none of them are going to trial,” Beeson said.Caloia said she was still seeing “a lot of interest” in a recall effort. She said she will launch one July 11; state law dictates a district attorney must be in office six months before a recall attempt can begin.”I’ve done all the research I need to do about forming a committee, and I’m in the process of forming a committee.”
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