DA candidates touch on hot-button issues
During the Issues and Answers Forum at Glenwood Springs City Hall on Wednesday, three candidates running for the 9th Judicial District Attorney delved into several issues that have held the spotlight much of this election year.
The incumbent, Democrat Sherry Caloia, is running for re-election against a Republican, Jeff Cheney, and an independent, Chip McCrory.
Both McCrory and Cheney are Garfield County defense attorneys who have worked as prosecutors in the 9th Judicial District Attorney’s Office.
The candidates fielded questions about their approaches to plea deals, restorative justice, relationships with local law enforcement and retaining strong staff.
Concerning her relationship with local law enforcement, Caloia said the publicized battles between she and Garfield County Sheriff Lou Vallario are purely politics. The two offices otherwise work well together and do their jobs, she said.
In April, the Glenwood Springs Post Independent reported on a flare up between the two elected officials via email. Vallario, and apparently several police chiefs, believed the DA was inappropriately dropping or undercharging cases. And law enforcement has complained that Caloia makes it too difficult to get warrants approved.
Caloia has, however, stood by her high standards for evidence, and said she often asks police to do more investigation to build a stronger case.
“I will call the police to task, and that’s what you want in a DA, someone who will give a true and honest review of a case and whether it can be proved in court.”
Cheney said he won’t be a rubber stamp for the police, but he has an ethical and professional obligation to put aside personal issues and work with them.
A DA can’t afford to have law enforcement that doesn’t trust him or her, he said. From one end of this judicial district to the other, Cheney said he’s been approached by law enforcement that doesn’t trust or want to work with the current DA.
“For the last 19 years, I’ve been bedeviling the police in this district” as a defense attorney, said McCrory. But he believes he’s maintained the much-needed respect of the police through his work, having defended some officers themselves when they’ve run afoul of the law.
With a high turnover at the DA’s office, McCrory concluded that Caloia’s management style must be driving attorneys away, though she challenged that reasoning, saying it’s typical for young attorneys to work as a prosecutor and leave after only two to four years.
Finding the right plea agreements for the right cases requires that a prosecutor draws from his or her experiences, “and the only way to do that is to try cases in court,” Cheney said.
He emphasized the importance of consulting with victims before extending a plea offer and carefully evaluating the evidence when deciding if a plea offer should be made.
“Most cases are plea bargained. The secret is to know which ones to plea bargain and what is an appropriate plea,” McCrory said. That requires the DA to work with police and the victims and to listen to the defense for details that might change the prosecutor’s decision, he said.
“The sole purpose of the DA is to do justice, not merely to convict,” McCrory said.
Victims are and have to be notified about plea deals, and while consulting with them is an important step, they don’t dictate when a case goes to trial, Caloia said. “We are the stewards of what should go to trial and what should not.”
Due to the heavy load of cases that come through the district’s courts, plea bargaining is done regularly. Otherwise you’re wasting a lot of time and resources trying cases with charges you cannot prove, Caloia said. “Sometimes that makes the victims unhappy, but that’s part of the business.”
Speaking on the role of restorative justice programs, Cheney vowed that within the first six months of his time in office, he would establish a restorative justice task force to expand its implementation in the judicial district.
Caloia promoted the diversion program and sexual-assault response team, both of which she has developed during her first term.
Cheney followed by also promising to begin initiating an effective sexual-assault response team program within six months of taking office.
“You know as well as I that if you’re the victim of a crime or the accused, you can’t afford to have an inexperienced prosecutor,” Cheney said.
Caloia said she was elected to bring common sense and good judgment to the DA’s office. “I’m independent, hard working and not afraid to do the right thing.” She urged voters to support her rather than returning to a rubber stamp for the police.
“I know the other side of the coin from being a defense attorney,” McCrory said. With 16 years as a prosecutor before his 19 years as a defense attorney, McCrory said, “Combined, they have less experience in the district attorney’s office than I do.”
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