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Critics: Cases slipping from DA’s control

Chad Abraham

A lack of prosecutors with felony level experience in the 9th Judicial District is causing a crisis that is being felt around the Western Slope.At least three cases that had been lined up for felony trials have been plea-bargained to misdemeanors, and in one case, a trial wasn’t held at all, according to critics of District Attorney Colleen Truden.”[Defense attorneys] are riding this wave right now,” said attorney Sherry Caloia, the town prosecutor for Basalt and Carbondale who is planning a recall attempt of Truden.”The felony cases are going down to misdemeanors,” concurred Martin Beeson, a former deputy district attorney who resigned from the office this spring. “They’re being dismissed, and defendants are being given deferred judgment sentences when they’re not appropriate candidates.”Truden has run into a host of controversies since she took office in January, ranging from paying her husband $6,000 for computer work while at the same time paying another company nearly $9,000 for similar tasks to being questioned about the truthfulness of her statements to commissioners from two counties.She has also been criticized for ending a domestic violence diversion program and using taxpayer dollars to remodel her office.Now it’s the handling of her case load that is drawing attention.Before he resigned, Beeson said, he had four felony jury trials scheduled for the month of May.One of them was a case involving Samuel Johnston, who was charged with DUI while being a habitual traffic offender, a felony. If convicted, Johnston would have lost his driver’s license for five years and may have been sent to prison. He pleaded guilty recently to driving while alcohol impaired, a lesser offense than DUI, said Caloia. She said she is in possession of the paper work for several cases that have been settled or are working their way through the 9th Judicial District.”To be convicted of being a habitual traffic offender, you have to have three serious traffic offenses,” she said. “The public defender wanted a plea of a deferred judgment to the felony, and Martin Beeson said no, he had to take a felony.” Beeson, consulting his trial calendar at his home last night, said he remembered that case.The defense attorney wanted a deferred judgment sentence, Beeson said, but he and another deputy district attorney agreed that wasn’t appropriate. Beeson said Truden and Assistant District Attorney Vince Felletter agreed it should go to trial. He said he heard the case had been knocked down to a misdemeanor or there was a deferred judgment.Caloia confirmed Johnston received a lesser sentence.Truden and Felletter did not return phone calls Tuesday. “Defense attorneys are counting on the [inexperience]. I talk to the defense attorneys at random on various things. One defense attorney in particular told me this morning, ‘I’m just setting my stuff for trial. Why should I take a plea?'” Caloia said. “The lawyer said they’re continuing everything. There are so many mistakes that are being made as a result of the understaffing.”Because they don’t have enough time to make sure their underlying case preparation gets done, Caloia said, they go to court and want to continue a hearing to a later date.”The judges at some point aren’t going to continue these cases anymore.”The chaseA police officer said when he tried to pull over Rayburn Mouton near Parachute in August 2004, around 2 a.m., Mouton sped away, leading to a wild chase down remote dirt roads before he pulled over. He was charged with vehicular eluding, a felony, and eluding police, a misdemeanor. He also faced charges of DUI, reckless driving and driving without a license.Beeson said Mouton’s trial was set for Wednesday and Thursday of last week. Beeson, who had refused to offer Mouton a misdemeanor, said the suspect pleaded guilty to misdemeanors recently, avoiding a trial.”The [prosecutor] was Tony Hershey,” Caloia said. “[He’s] never tried a felony, he didn’t know how to try a felony.”This is not the kind of crime-fighting Truden promised when she ran for district attorney, Caloia said. She speculated these outcomes are a result of the resignations of deputy district attorneys and administrative staff, and the subsequent lack of experience.ReverberationsBoth attorneys brought up a recent dismissal of a bail bond violation charge in Grand Junction last week in which Felletter was assigned as a special prosecutor. Beeson said he was the original special prosecutor for the case, which was set for Tuesday and today.David Coff was charged with felony burglary in a domestic violence case. He allegedly violated his bond by having contact with a person who he was restricted from seeing.”That was, in my estimation, a slam dunk violation of bail bond conditions,” Beeson said.He said one of his witnesses was the deputy who arrested him, who later allegedly saw Coff walk into a courtroom with the person whom he was not allowed to contact.Last week, Caloia said Felletter “just outright dismissed” the case.Beeson said in addition to his cases, former Deputy District Attorney Jeff Cheney had four felony trials set for June. Beeson said Cheney offered to stay and try each case but Truden declined the offer.”It’ll be interesting to see what happens with his trials,” Beeson said.Caloia said she was still hearing “a lot of interest” in a recall effort. She said she will launch one July 11; state law dictates a district attorney must be in office six months before a recall attempt can begin.”I’ve done all the research I need to do about forming a committee, and I’m in the process of forming a committee.”Chad Abraham’s e-mail address is chad@aspentimes.com


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