GLENWOOD SPRINGS - Ninth District Attorney Sherry Caloia, in her third week on the job, has begun weeding through case files to reduce the mounting backlog in the local courts.
"I've told my deputies that there is a problem with the dockets," she said. Her team of 10 deputy DAs are working with her to cut that backlog.
According to some defense attorneys, that effort already is detectable on court dockets in Garfield, Pitkin and Rio Blanco counties, which make up the three-county judicial district.
"I've got movement in two or three cases that, under the previous administration, I wasn't able to get," said attorney Lawson Wills, a former 9th District prosecutor who now represents defendants in district court.
"There is talking between the two sides, the defense and the prosecution, which never happened before. Everything has been very positive, in the short period we've had to work with her," Wills added.
Caloia, who was sworn into office on Jan. 8 to replace former DA Martin Beeson, has moved quickly to reassign her deputies, naming Scott Turner as her new chief deputy DA.
A key campaign pledge was Caloia's promise to deal with a case backlog that has vexed judges, defense attorneys and defendants weary of delays.
"It has been a conscious effort," Caloia said. Her office has examined every single case in its hands. She said it is too early to know how many cases will be modified.
One of her first steps was to hire seasoned prosecutors Turner and Steve Mallory, both of them formerly with the 5th Judicial District (Eagle, Summit, Lake and Clear Creek counties), to replace deputies who left with the previous DA and to help work on the analysis of the cases.
Mallory has a decade of experience as a prosecutor, and Turner has worked for 20 years as a defense attorney and prosecutor.
"Their job was to look at the cases on the docket and assess whether they're going to trial or disposition [plea bargain]," Caloia explained.
Caloia's instructions to her deputies were to check to see if the cases have been charged correctly, and if the charges can be proven in court.
Last week, she said, the deputies began to reduce charges, dismissing at least one case and switching five cases from district court, which handles felony-level cases, to county court, which deals with misdemeanors.
The deputies also are talking with defense attorneys to begin working out plea bargains in weaker cases.
Among the cases sent down to county court was one in which Luz E. Figuera-Torres, 27, of Glenwood Springs, was charged with two felony-level counts of threatening neighbors with a weapon, four counts of third degree assault (a misdemeanor), and with child abuse and neglect, over an incident in a trailer park in West Glenwood.
After reviewing the facts of the case, Caloia moved to dismiss all but the assault charges, which will be heard in county court.
Caloia dismissed the entire local case against Jared Zalenka, 25, of Rifle, who was accused last year of stealing a set of scaffolding from a truck.
"The people cannot meet their burden on this case," Caloia's office wrote in a document submitted to District Judge Daniel Petre. Petre had not signed the motion to dismiss as of Jan. 29 but was expected to do so.
She also dismissed a local drug possession case against Michael A. Dufresne, a 31-year-old homeless man arrested Dec. 31, 2012, on a Pitkin County warrant after being found nearly unconscious on the curb of Sixth Street in Glenwood Springs.
After learning of the warrant, police arrested Dufresne and took him to jail, where they searched him and allegedly found a small packet of cocaine in his pocket, and charged him.
"The defendant was approached while unconscious and appeared to be suffering from a possible drug overdose," Caloia wrote in her motion to the judge. "Therefore, in the interests of justice, the case should be dismissed."
"I think everything was dispo'd correctly," she said of the cases either dismissed or given reduced charges. She said the cases would have had similar action under Beeson, "but it would have taken a lot more time."
"He wanted to go to the mat with all these cases," Caloia said of Beeson. "I'm much more realistic."
She said rather than approach every case aggressively, she is looking at cases to assess how hard it would be to prove the facts.
For instance, she said, her team assesses the facts as gathered by police and checks to see if mistakes were made by police or prosecutors that might make the case hard to prove. The team also checks whether the defendant has a criminal record and whether victims or witnesses have disappeared or grown reluctant about testifying.
"You have to take all of it into account," she said, in deciding whether to pursue a case, dismiss it or reduce the charges.
Acknowledging that some might view this as letting bad people back on the streets too easily, Caloia said, "I don't believe that's going to be the case."
A more aggressive approach is no guarantee of victory in court, she said.
"My methods will result in a higher rate of conviction" than Beeson accomplished, Caloia declared confidently.