DA Truden: Trial by fire | AspenTimes.com

DA Truden: Trial by fire

Chad Abraham

9th Judicial District district attorney Colleen Truden. Aspen Times photo/Paul Conrad.

Resigning has never crossed her mind.She has worked too hard to become district attorney, said Colleen Truden, and her office has made too much progress in fighting crime in the nearly six months she’s been head of the 9th Judicial District.Critics, however, have assailed her on numerous fronts, including a large changeover in staff; her budget practices, including the hiring of her husband for contract work; and the veracity of statements made to commissioners in Garfield and Pitkin counties (the 9th District includes those counties and Rio Blanco) about her husband and the manner in which several prosecutors left, or were escorted out of, her office.With a recall effort likely to be launched Monday, July 11, Truden and her top prosecutor, Vince Felletter, sat down with a reporter to discuss a number of issues, including Truden’s opponents, the resignations of five deputy prosecutors, her lack of prosecutorial experience, and her overall performance.As the interview began, Truden stated clearly what she would not talk about: the people aiming to recall her. She said her responsibility as district attorney requires “a tremendous amount of need for restraint. I cannot and will not just go out and defame people, slander them and say anything to get a headline for a personal agenda.”You, as a citizen, would hate to think I’m just one of those people who would go out and start making up stories, misinforming the public about what’s going on or saying anything just for a personal agenda.”I will defend this office because I am concerned – and we talked about this in our management team and in the office – about what this campaign against me is doing to this office. And it’s deplorable.”What is it doing to the office?It’s interfering with the public’s view of how this office is being run. It’s a smear campaign. It causes individuals, potential jurors, who read this information and this smear, to question this office when they come in and we’re here presenting to them a case. It’s serious business. These are accusations brought by individuals who claim to have prosecution as their focus, and yet they’re doing everything they can to undermine the ability of this office to do just that.

What we’ve been able to accomplish in a very short period of time, particularly with all of this going on and a new administration, I think it’s pretty amazing.Were you surprised by any of the resignations of the deputy district attorneys?Yes. These were people who came to me and asked me for their jobs. When I was looking to fill positions that would be in this office, these were individuals who were with the prior administration – who were entrenched in that regime – who said, “I want to prosecute and I want to work for you and I can be a part of your team and I can accept your leadership.” So when everything seems to be going fairly smoothly, I heard nothing from them.Are you fully staffed now?No. We’re fully staffed in Rio Blanco and Pitkin [counties]. We’re down two attorneys here in Garfield County, which I do not intend to fill immediately as we go through this [recall] process. With all of this going on, it has affected our ability to go out and hire the people we would otherwise be able to hire.I’m not just going to put bodies in here. I’m going to look for the people who’re going to fit with our team. Because we’ve got a phenomenal team that’s building, now that individuals who have shown they don’t want to be part of this team are gone.(Truden added that nine of the 11 prosecutor positions in the district are filled.)How do you respond to some who say they feel less safe with you in office?I think these critics are making it more difficult for us to do our job. Those types of statements aren’t helping them to feel safer, either.Every district attorney in the state actively prosecutes cases. It is the belief of some that you’ve never walked into a courtroom to prosecute a criminal case.I haven’t, but I’m trying to figure out how that’s relevant to where you’re going here. We pretty much covered this during the election that I won. Voters made it pretty clear that that wasn’t their major concern.It’s a departure from other district attorneys around the state.That’s interesting. It is a departure for some other DAs, but some DAs have never prosecuted a case. Some have, some haven’t. Some walk into the administrative position and don’t prosecute any further cases. Some may take a couple cases during their entire tenure as a district attorney. It is a position that requires a great deal of time and effort, and doesn’t give you a lot of freedom to be in the courtroom, especially the bigger the jurisdiction.

When could the public expect you to try a criminal case?At our district attorney training that we had in December, they said don’t even think about taking a case for at least a year. There’s way too many things that you need to learn and you need to get up to speed on as an administrator, running the office and making those decisions, before you think about going back into a courtroom.Garfield County Sheriff Lou Vallario has said a homicide or manslaughter charge may be brought against the suspect who shot and killed Jeff Garrett near New Castle. Based on your evaluation of the evidence, what charges, if any, will your office file?Felletter: I can tell you we’ve been working very closely with the sheriff’s office and the investigators there. We’ve been working very closely with the [Colorado]attorney general’s office. As you know the suspect is suspected at this point to be in Mexico. We’ve started some coordination with the Mexican authorities through the attorney general’s office.Did either one of you go out to the scene?Truden: No.Felletter: We sat through a fairly involved presentation from the investigators who went up there. Not only did they go up to the scene, take lots of pictures and stuff like that, but they had a helicopter take them up and they did a video of the scene. [The site] is quite removed. It’s way up on the top, basically, of a ridgeline. There’s no purpose or point in us going up there just to say, “Yeah, I’ve been up at the scene.” Our efforts are better spent down here working the legal side.District attorneys are subject to term limits and are rotated out more frequently than in the past. Do you think the qualifications for district attorney should be changed so that candidates have some minimum amount of prosecutorial experience?Truden: If I thought that, why would I have run in the first place? I don’t believe it’s a necessary component. I stress this because that’s what the primary opposition against me was last year, that’s part of what I hear being espoused by individuals who have personal agendas at this time.They want you to think I have no criminal justice or criminal law experience background. It’s just flat-out not true. I have 23 years as an attorney. I spent nine of those as an associate judge or a judge in a municipal court that did misdemeanor work. I worked for a chief federal district court judge for two years in which I handled the felony docket, plus all of the prisoner litigation cases. I did the habeas corpus cases, including many death penalty cases. I have a tremendous amount of background.I guess your detractors are focusing on the lack of criminal trial experience.There again, they’re saying I haven’t been in the courtroom trying [cases]. I’ve sat as a judge on thousands of cases, hundreds of trials. I’ve sat as a law clerk for federal district court. It’s not fair to just say, “Oh, you’ve never stood up in the 9th Judicial District and prosecuted a felony case. Therefore you’re inadequate or you’re incompetent.” If that’s their standard, whoa! That’s pretty sad to require that kind of particularized … where did they practice before? Did they prosecute here? You have to really look at what are the criteria.Is the job what you thought it would be?It’s an amazing opportunity to serve your public. I think it is one of the greatest honors that the citizens in the 9th Judicial District have given to me, to represent them and prosecute criminals and getting bad guys off the street. I had not hoped I would have all of this stuff to go through. I would have hoped that my administration would have been allowed to go forward and build, like most administrations are, without those who have sour grapes constantly trying to interfere with our ability to get our job done.

Did resigning ever cross your mind?Absolutely not. Absolutely not. I have fought hard to get here to make the changes people wanted and asked and demanded. Resigning was not [on my mind] because a couple of people call me names.Do you feel like you have support from citizens in the three-county region?I know I have a tremendous amount of support from the people who voted me in office and the people I meet on the streets, from the telephone calls I get. I constantly get, “Thumbs up, hang in there, this is all going to work out.”In that same vein, is this recall effort strictly limited to the Roaring Fork Valley?I think it’s limited to a couple of individuals and we’ll see where it goes.Do you regret not being more open when the media first started focusing on you after the resignations of the deputy district attorneys?I wish that the media, and I don’t think it was all, I think it was individuals, could have presented themselves and their articles in a way that would have encouraged me to be open with them. I want you to be able to do your job better. If you’re able to do your job better by printing fuller information for the reader, then your paper actually does better than the smear.When I see certain types of things show up in the paper that are just not based in any truth or fact, it’s all personal attack – and they allow that to happen. They put it in there to stir up controversy to sell newspapers. It’s one of those things [when] you go, “Why talk?” Because it’s not going to get printed accurately, it’s not going to be printed fairly, so what entices me as an elected official, as the district attorney, to say things that I don’t think are going to be accurately represented?We’re going to have a long haul here together, OK? We need to build some trust. [Stories need] to reflect some integrity and honesty so that readers can trust you. … All the open-records requests [are] bogging down the office so [staff] can’t do the things they need to do on a daily basis. And then that all goes out, it gets all faxed over to the papers. A lot of that information wasn’t even accurate.It wasn’t accurate even though it came from your office?The information was; the spin on it wasn’t.Are you comfortable with the number of plea offers and convictions that this office has reached within six months?

It’s a more complex issue than that. You have to understand how the criminal justice system works. You have to understand where plea bargaining fits into that system and how appropriate plea bargaining is under certain circumstances. If you understand that and you look at the dynamic, then it’s easy to see where it all fits together.Are we getting convictions? You bet. Are we having plea bargains, is that part of the process in acquiring convictions? Yes. Should everything go to trial? No, not if you have two extremely competent attorneys on both sides who are capable of properly evaluating their case, analyzing the evidence and resolving that case in a fair way. It isn’t all about the numbers. It’s about seeing justice get done.Are police being overzealous in filing alleged crimes, and has that led to more plea offers than normal?I haven’t seen police officers being more zealous in their job. Numbers are up. I think they have a much greater level of confidence in this office to proceed with the cases, which is exactly what they told me and why they wanted me to run and partially why I was elected, because cases were not being brought. If the numbers [of plea offers] are up, it’s probably reflective of the overall numbers being up.You said in your campaign that you’d be tougher on crime. Do you think in the six months you’ve been in office, you’ve lived up to that?In general, absolutely, positively. People were unhappy and are unhappy that I take DUIs seriously. I don’t care if people want to go out and get plastered, I just don’t want them to get behind the wheel of a car and kill somebody.Do those types of crimes bog down the court system?If you can prove your DUI case at [a higher] level, then why are you giving a person [a lower] level? People need to take drinking and driving seriously. There’s just too much substance abuse in this area. And it’s because we have this playground. We have people who want to engage in certain behavior. I can’t, as district attorney, the top law enforcement officer in this community, be approving that and sanctioning that.How has all of this controversy affected your life?It makes it more challenging to deal with the day-to-day routine that you want to be dealing with for the district.Personally, do you feel worn down?If people want to attack you, you kind of get used to it. It’s very unfortunate. It doesn’t make you happy that people are taking personal shots at you. Some of it’s just ridiculous. To the extent that you wish they had something better in their lives to do than personally attack you, you feel sorry for them.You hired your husband, Fred, to help set up a new computer system in the Glenwood Springs office. Do you understand how some in the public might have thought that was unseemly or was a bit of nepotism?

The way it was presented, by these people saying that … you know these are people who came out of this office who didn’t even bother to find out the facts before they started being quoted in the paper.What are the facts?He helped do the computer stuff. He was being shown how Mike [Wynn, of computer firm DeskTop Consulting] wanted things transferred so they could work simultaneously to get all the computers switched over and prepared.Does Fred still have a relationship with the office?Other than he’s my husband, no. That was the whole point: We came into office, we had these [computer] things going on. [Previous computer firm] Micro Solutions really wasn’t a solution for the office at that point.We paid them almost $2,200 just for the work they did in December and through Jan. 10, and when I contacted them, they couldn’t even provide me an inventory of what was in the office. That didn’t instill a great deal of confidence in wanting to work with them. Their hourly rate was higher than Fred, [who] was willing to help switch it over. It was short-term and that way the office would be up and running.After the interview, Truden presented numbers she said showed that her staff, while smaller than previous administrations, has handled hundreds more cases. The total number of cases filed in the three-county 9th Judicial District, from Jan. 1 to May 31 in 2004, was 2,931, Truden said. For the same period this year, the office handled 3,494 cases.”I point that out because it shows that even with fewer people, we’re doing more than they did last year. And the courts aren’t bogged down. Things are moving forward.”I think this just goes to show the number of cases we’re handling, that the whole point that my detractors were saying, ‘Oh, they can’t handle it, they can’t keep up’ – We’re not only keeping up, we’re handling an excess. Even, and on top of that, putting up with all this, putting up with people who would want us to fail. That’s what they want us to do, and we’re not going to do it.”Chad Abraham’s e-mail address is chad@aspentimes.com