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DA under fire from advocacy group

As a recall election for 9th Judicial District Attorney Colleen Truden approaches, another drama is playing out in felony court. An advocacy group has called Truden’s decision to charge 14-year-old Eric Stoneman with first-degree murder a political move to prove she is tough on crime. Assistant District Attorney Vince Felletter believes the move is in the interest of seeing justice done.On July 20, Stoneman shot and killed 9-year-old Taylor DeMarco in a home in Battlement Mesa. If convicted of first-degree murder, Stoneman faces a mandatory sentence of life in prison.There are those who believe that Stoneman’s case does not warrant such a serious charge.The Pendulum Foundation, based in Colorado Springs, which advocates for juvenile offenders, believes justice is not being served by charging Stoneman as an adult.”We believe it was an accident of kids playing with guns,” said Mary Ellen Johnson, executive director of the foundation. “I think this child should be in juvenile court and not have to face life in prison.”Johnson also thinks that DA Truden has a political motive for charging Stoneman as an adult.”I believe there is a political bent to this prosecution from a DA who wants to appear tough on crime rather than focus on her own problems when her own office is in disarray,” Johnson said.However, Assistant District Attorney Felletter said that is far from the truth.”I recognize in the Stoneman case, as in every other case we prosecute, there is the need for justice to be done,” he said. The media and recall supporters have “portrayed Colleen and I as having a knee-jerk reaction (to the case). They say we want to put (him) in prison for the rest of his life.” But Felletter maintains the case was carefully analyzed before arriving at a decision to charge the boy with first-degree murder. Before coming to the 9th Judicial District, Felletter worked as a felony prosecutor in the Mesa County DA’s office for 11 years, and handled a number of murder cases with former DA Frank Daniels.A lobbying effortThe Pendulum Foundation is also lobbying for legislation that would prohibit district attorneys from transferring a juvenile charge to an adult charge. Before 1993, all such transfers had to be heard before a judge, who made the decision. Since then, because of legislative change, DAs now have to prerogative to “direct file” an adult charge against a juvenile, which is what took place in the Stoneman case.”With (direct filing) there are no checks and balances. We have a juvenile system that takes care of kids like Eric (Stoneman),” Johnson said. Juvenile detention facilities also serve to rehabilitate young offenders, usually with good success, she said.Colorado currently has 46 people serving life in prison who were juveniles charged as adults, out of a total of 360 serving life in prison.Johnson said justice is not served by charging Stoneman with first-degree murder and the prospect of facing life in prison.Colorado allows anyone 14 years and older who is accused of a violent crime to be charged as an adult.Although he would not speak directly about the Stoneman case, Felletter said it is the obligation of the prosecutor’s office to follow the law.”The (Colorado) legislature has said a juvenile can be charged as adult because the crime is so serious or their record is so serious they should be charged as an adult,” he said.Felletter pointed out that such an adult charge carries a range of options for a plea bargain in which charges are reduced to a lesser degree than the original and the offender agrees to plead guilty.”Accusing anyone, juvenile or adult, is the most serious charge that can be brought against (an offender). … It is tragic for everyone concerned. But is it appropriate? Yes, it is,” Felletter said. In the Stoneman case the seriousness of the crime “certainly was a factor” in his being charged as an adult.Variety of choicesWhile it’s the job of the prosecutor to assemble the facts of the case and present the evidence to a jury if the case comes to trial, “prosecutors also have quite a bit of discretion to resolve cases,” Felletter said.The majority of felony cases that come across the district attorney’s desk are resolved without going to trial, and in many cases with a reduced charge to which the offender agrees to plead guilty, he said.In determining an alternative disposition to a case, Felletter said many interests are considered, including the victim of the crime, the community affected by the crime as well as the offender.”We are not there to hammer people as hard as we can. It is not our ethical obligation. Our concern is to do justice in each case,” he said.Charged with a class one felony, a juvenile can spend at most seven years in juvenile detention.”In deciding to charge any juvenile as an adult (there is a) whole range of adult possibilities open,” Felletter said, including “prison, probation and anything in between.Also important to the DA, he said, is the fact that an adult conviction stays on a person’s record for the rest of his or her life, while “a juvenile charge can be cleared and sealed so there is no record.”A judge can also consider a range of sentencing options in a plea bargain situation. For example, a juvenile can be convicted as an adult and serve time in a youth offender facility, Felletter said.Advocate groups like Pendulum Foundation are also promoting legislation that would not allow juveniles to serve time in prison with adult convicts.”Pendulum wants to change the laws. But the great majority of people in Colorado don’t agree. The important thing to remember is in any case (where an offender is) charged as adult, we can reach a disposition,” Felletter said. “When we decide to prosecute a juvenile as an adult, the idea is to keep all options open.”Stages of griefVictims also carry great weight in forming, or even seeking, a plea bargain, Felletter added. In the case of a violent crime resulting in death, as with Stoneman, victims go through stages of grief.”By and large it would be wrong and unfair to force a victim to say at the beginning of a murder case what they think is an appropriate resolution to the case,” Felletter said.”They have to get through the funeral and the aftermath of a person being gone from their lives. … We know it’s going to take months (to resolve) and in some ways it’s good. A victim needs time to … get past initial stages (of grief) and build up some trust (for the prosecutors). … Then we can sit down and say here’s what we’re looking at.”He also speaks with the defense attorneys, who in Stoneman’s case are public defenders Greg Greer and Jim Conway.”I think this office has a very good relationship with the public defenders office,” he said. “We’ve built up a good working relationship and have reached satisfactory dispositions with the majority of cases. I have tremendous respect for the three attorneys there.”Felletter said in prosecuting murder cases he always puts himself in the position of both the victim and the accused.”Imagine being the family of someone who is murdered. I have two kids of my own, and any parent can see their child in a position of being a victim.”He can also put himself in the position of being a parent of a child who is accused of murder. “My God, what would you do if that was my kid. … In every case I think what would I feel if I were in their seat, so I try to give them the best disposition possible.”Stoneman is due back in court on Nov. 3.Contact Donna Gray: 945-8515, ext. 510dgray@postindependent.com


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