ALAMOSA– “We’re rebuilding. It’s going to take time. We’re in this for a while.”
That was the takeaway from two of the conversations Attorney General Phil Weiser had during his trip to the San Luis Valley this week. While the settings were different – one, a conversation with the Valley Courier and the second, a town hall with members of the public – the message was the same.
Significant damage has been done to the district attorney’s office for the 12th Judicial District and rebuilding – not just repairing but actually reconstructing a functioning office – is going to be a long process.
Unlike the last conversation where the ongoing nature of an investigation limited how much could be discussed in detail, AG Weiser spoke more candidly about the situation.
Some facts were already known. Some were not.
There have been, with very few exceptions, no trials in the last 18 months. The DA’s office is currently staffed by one part-time prosecutor. The LEAD Program, a key component of improving the criminal justice system, is no longer being handled by the DA’s office and has been referred to the Center for Restorative Justice. The Diversion Program is no longer in existence.
And there is currently a backlog of 500 cases in the DA’s office, a situation Weiser describes as a “formidable challenge.”
Finally, in a stunning piece of information that completely contradicts the former DA’s claim that insufficient funding and a lack of prosecutors on staff was responsible for the office’s poor performance, AG Weiser said that his office has been offering assistance to the 12th Judicial District since the beginning.
“I’d made it clear during Alonzo Payne’s first month in office that one of the jobs I take very seriously is to support rural communities in criminal prosecutions,” Weiser said. “You can look around the state - our office is there, helping rural communities with complex cases. We wanted to help here in the valley but we weren’t allowed to. We had to be asked.”
That ask was never made, despite the number of cases increasing exponentially and the offer of help being available from day one. It was only after taking on the role of special prosecutors that the Office of the Attorney’s General was able to step in.
And things are starting to happen.
According to Weiser, a team from his office has “stepped up” as have people from other district attorney offices from around the state and people from the Colorado District Attorneys’ Council.
As evidence, a trial is being held this week, the first in a long time.
“Our team is working to triage the cases, to find a path for those cases and to be there for victims,” Weiser said.
While there was significant public outcry over plea deals agreed to by the DA, especially in highly visible cases, it was the collective voices of victims and the subsequent complaints they filed that lit the spark that ignited the flame that was ultimately responsible for the change that has taken place.
“I can tell you, our team is front and center in being victim-centered,” Weiser said. “The right for victims to be heard is a right under law. But it’s also a moral right. Part of the criminal justice system is to heal a breach that has happened.”
Instead of healing, Weiser said, victims felt mistreated with no acknowledgement of what they suffered or condolences for what they had experienced or attempts to be treated humanely – including people who experienced the murder of a loved one or victims of sexual assault who were “brutally treated” by the DA’s office.
“I sat down with victims yesterday, hearing directly what happened to them, and it’s unlike anything I’ve ever heard before. It’s kind of…hard to really come to grips with what happened here. I’m just so sorry because people were basically re-victimized. They had a terrible loss and then they were mistreated in a process that was supposed to be providing them with a measure of peace and justice.”
In terms of preventing future violations of victims’ rights, Weiser believes significant steps have already been taken with setting “a framework that will protect victims in the San Luis Valley by having a monitor in place to oversee the conduct of the office.”
Weiser also had a meeting with law enforcement in the valley, describing them as highly professional and who have also stayed committed despite enduring “a situation that is not like any we’ve ever had in Colorado.”
“We’ve been working with them in a way they said they haven’t had that is responsive and highly professional. I think they’re feeling a sense of relief. We’re also working to improve the operations of the office. So, they recognize this is a new chapter.”
But, Weiser emphasized, this is going to take some time.
“When you come into a situation where things have been building up and not dealt with effectively, it takes time to sort and get through that.”
The team is now focusing on the “most troubling cases involving victims” and “making sure we’re there for them.” There is also a focus on determining which cases that were previously unpursued but may warrant prosecution.
Meanwhile, the cases currently assigned to special prosecutors will stay on track.
The other challenge, Weiser said, is determining how many prosecutors the office needs to function effectively and how “to get from here to there.”
As far as going forward and appointing a new district attorney, the governor will soon be announcing the formation of a group to review the situation, call for applications, interview people and hopefully find someone who is appropriate to the job.
“This is an important opportunity for public service, to come into an office that needs good leadership and a way forward.”
However, there’s a lot of work that’s going to take place, not just over the weeks and months but the years ahead.
“I can make this commitment to the San Luis Valley. Part of my job is working with public safety in rural communities, and we’re committed to working with the next district attorney and beyond to help this community honor victims, protect public safety and improve its criminal justice system. We’re here and we’re in this for a while.”