Case of homeless man stirs up DA, defense
August 5, 2011
ASPEN – The early-morning arrest of a homeless man Friday set off a firestorm of motions and courtroom arguments between prosecutors and public defenders in Pitkin County Court.
Alex Velasquez, 36, was picked up at the Holden/Marolt Mining and Ranching Museum, where he was reportedly sleeping, after a warrant was issued for his arrest Thursday. The pending charges: one class-four felony count of second-degree assault on a police officer, and misdemeanor counts of third-degree assault resulting in bodily injury, resisting arrest, and disorderly conduct.
Chief Deputy District Attorney Arnold Mordkin’s last-minute charges, coupled with a motion to dismiss the county court case against Velasquez that was to be tried before a jury Friday, inspired a testy standoff in Pitkin County Court. There, Public Defender Tina Fang accused Mordkin of trying to buy time to boost his case. He did so, Fang argued, by upping the charges on Velasquez because he couldn’t find the alleged victim – also a homeless man – to testify in Friday’s trial, effectively hampering the District Attorney’s Office’s chance to get a conviction.
By raising the charges against Velasquez with a felony, Mordkin could have the case transferred from county court to district court, giving him more time to gather witnesses for his case, Fang argued. Mordkin disagreed.
“They [the public defenders] want that mantle,” he said after Friday’s hearing. “It’s wrong.”
Fang persuaded Pitkin County Judge Erin Fernandez-Ely to release Velasquez from jail on a $5,000 personal recognizance bond. The judge will decide Aug. 23 whether to dismiss the county court case. Velasquez, meanwhile, waived advisement Friday on the new case pending against him in district court.
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Friday’s events came after Velasquez was arrested Feb. 10 in Snowmass Village on suspicion of the barehanded assault of a local vagrant in the parking lot of Alpine Bank. According to a Snowmass Police report, when the cops arrived Velasquez was ordered to leave the scene. He didn’t, instead shoving Officer Franz Zedlacher and resisting arrest when two other officers tried to place him in handcuffs, the report states.
Velasquez, who has a previous felony conviction from nearly 10 years ago related to domestic violence, originally wasn’t charged with the assault on a police officer count. But now he is – nearly six months after the incident in Snowmass.
Mordkin and Nedlin had been planning all week for Friday’s trial. But Thursday, at a pre-trial hearing, the prosecution revealed to the judge and public defenders that it couldn’t track down the alleged victim, who had not been subpoenaed to testify in Friday’s trial. That same day, prosecutors filed a motion to continue to the county court trial to a later date.
The motion was denied by Fernandez-Ely, prompting prosecutors to file one motion dismiss to the county court case, and file the new felony charge of assault on a police officer, along with the three misdemeanor counts, in district court. Later Thursday, a judge approved a warrant for the arrest of Velasquez on the new case. He was picked up by Aspen police at 2:13 a.m.
Fang, in a statement issued to The Aspen Times, said: “Days like these make me proud to be a public defender and work with other dedicated public defenders. Without an attorney standing between the overreaching arm of the district attorney, the government would have unfettered power to overcharge and harass citizens. The Sixth Amendment, right to counsel, is alive and well in the Roaring Fork Valley and we will defend the citizens of this valley with vigor.”
Mordkin, however, said the new case against Velasquez has merit. In Friday’s hearing, he said the alleged victim – the homeless man, not the police officer – “was beat to the point one of the witnesses actually thought he was dead.”
He declined, however, to tell the judge, when he was asked, why he was not willing to move forward with Friday’s trial.
“If quality [of the prosecution’s case] and preparedness was not an issue, why was [the continuance] requested?” she asked Mordkin.
“I’m not willing to say,” he said.