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End the briefcase wars at county courthouse

Dennis Webb

The cast of the recent “L.A. Law” reunion has nothing on local prosecutors and public defenders when it comes to courtroom theatrics.

Public Defender Greg Greer and District Attorney Mac Myers went at each other with everything but their briefcases in motions and countermotions connected to the murder trial of Michael Stagner, prime suspect in a shooting spree against Mexicans in Rifle last July.

The tempest is slowly dying down, and the issues that provoked their outbursts are being decided by Ninth District Judge T. Peter Craven one by one. But the emotional displays haven’t come without consequence: Craven also has imposed a gag order on both sides, restricting what they can say to the media.

Before it was over, both sides referred to the others’ actions as “reprehensible.” Greer accused Myers of “self-serving hypocrisy,” and questioned his honesty and integrity. Myers’ office argued that Greer used “smoke and mirrors to bootstrap arguments, distort the truth and delay the proceedings.”

One issue that sparked the exchange was Myers’ attempt to obtain a second psychiatric opinion on Stagner’s sanity, after a first expert concluded that he was insane. Greer argued that Myers was “fishing for a second opinion” to meet his needs.

Myers also complained privately to a court clerk about a defense-initiated meeting with Stagner’s victims.

In both instances, both sides have valid arguments, if Craven’s rulings are any guide. He permitted Myers to obtain a second psychiatric opinion, but ruled out Dr. Park Dietz, the high-profile psychiatrist Myers had in mind.

Craven also ruled that any communication with court clerks must come in writing and immediately be faxed to the opposing side.

Legal issues aside, the bigger question is what got Myers and Greer so riled up at each other. Myers and Greer enjoyed a good working relationship that went back many years, and occasionally met for lunch.

These are both conscientious attorneys who take their jobs seriously. While they represent opposing sides in criminal cases, they both share the same goal that justice ultimately be done. They believe in following the legal process as the means to that end.

It is important that they remain on good terms with each other as they plow through the legal and logistical challenges of the Stagner case and a dozen others – no matter who emerges victorious in any one instance.

When they engage in the kind of sniping that we recently saw, it raises concerns about the state of that relationship and the impact it might have on the continuing quest for criminal justice.

Michael Stagner stands accused of killing four Mexicans and injuring three others in a shooting spree that terrified Rifle and the valley’s Latino community. The pursuit of justice is critically important to balance the needs of victims and the recognition of the defendant’s longstanding history of mental illness.

It’s possible that the high stakes and high pressure of the Stagner case explain the high passions that Greer and Myers are displaying. If so, it’s time they got those emotions under control.

It’s also possible that much of the posturing is a legal game they both feel a need to play in this case, after which they can do lunch again and laugh it off. Maybe so, but it leaves the public with a disturbing impression about the state of affairs between the DA and public defender.

It also has resulted in a judicial order that, while serving Craven’s top priority of keeping the Stagner proceedings from veering out of control, leaves the press with less ability to keep the public informed about the state of those proceedings.

We trust Craven’s ability to do what he must to keep the Stagner case on the proper track. But we also hope that Greer and Myers return to the level of professionalism we’ve long admired them for, and control themselves so judges need not intervene with extreme measures such as gag orders.

– Dennis Webb, News Editor


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