District Attorney Sherry Caloia discusses homicides, police force | AspenTimes.com

District Attorney Sherry Caloia discusses homicides, police force

Karl Herchenroeder
The Aspen Times
District Attorney Sherry Caloia speaks at the Mountain Chalet on Wednesday during the semi-weekly Aspen Business Luncheon.

Last year’s Nancy Pfister murder case, this year’s Carbondale homicide and the national firestorm surrounding police use of force were among the topics District Attorney Sherry Caloia discussed Wednesday during the Aspen Business Luncheon.

Caloia, district attorney for the 9th Judicial District, said Wednesday that she doesn’t feel great about the 20-year prison sentence William Styler is currently serving. In July, he confessed to second-degree murder of longtime Aspenite Nancy Pfister in a case where charges were dropped against two other suspects, Nancy Styler and Katherine Carpenter.

“It was really hard,” Caloia said during Wednesday’s discussion. “We had three people potentially involved, and we had good evidence against one of them and very little evidence against the other two. And so we were going to be in a situation where each of them was going to start pointing to each other, and it was going to be a difficult case to prove.”

She added that she’s not happy that William Styler only received 20 years, but in a practical sense, she considered it a life sentence for a man who was 65 at the time. Describing it as a “heinous crime” — Pfister was bludgeoned to death in her sleep — Caloia said the District Attorney’s Office got the right person. As for the other two, she said people can make their own decision.

“I feel good about it,” she said. “I don’t feel great about it.”

Andrea Bryan, who prosecuted the case, described it as the best result based on the “very bizarre circumstances.” Like Caloia, she said they got the right person, but she asked if they got “all the right people.”

“I don’t think any of us feel comfortable that we got the whole truth out of that case,” Bryan said.

Caloia also was asked about a Feb. 16 homicide in Carbondale, the town’s first in 12 years. Arturo Navarrete-Portillo is the sole suspect in the stabbing death of his wife, Maria Carminda Portillo-Amaya, who was allegedly killed with a machete in bed. The day of the murder, Navarrete-Portillo smashed a Toyota 4Runner into the back of an empty cattle truck making a left turn off Highway 133. He later told a life flight crew that he had killed his wife.

Caloia described the case as “fairly quiet” at this point. A public defender is representing Portillo-Amaya, who is charged with first-degree murder. A preliminary hearing is set for June.

Earlier in the discussion, moderator Todd Shaver asked Caloia about charges her office brings to court, which are sometimes lighter than police would have hoped. He asked if she is more lenient and how that plays out with law enforcement. Caloia said she tends to err on the lower side of things, saying she doesn’t like overcharging defendants because it can end up weakening her office’s credibility.

“Can we prove this to a jury of trial people?” Caloia said. “Because if we can’t, then we’re bluffing to go through the process, and I’m not inclined to bluff on these cases. The stakes are too high to do that.”

Elected in November 2012, Caloia is serving the second half of her four-year term as district attorney for the 9th Judicial District, which includes Pitkin, Garfield and Rio Blanco counties. She is responsible for an estimated $3 million budget, with about 72 percent going toward Garfield County, 20 percent to Pitkin County and 8 percent to Rio Blanco County. Compared with lawyers in the private sector, she said her attorneys are not paid well, which makes retainment a constant struggle. Still, she said she thinks she has a group of career prosecutors.

Shaver also asked Caloia about the rash of recent arrests around the country in which police have been blamed for the deaths of young, black men. Caloia responded that there are police out there who have good intentions, but there also are bad police, who let power go to their heads. She said it’s not unlike any other profession. Her position, she said, is to remove herself from the police when drawing conclusions.

“I’m not their friend,” Caloia said. “I am a reviewing agency as to what they do. … (I ask,) ‘Is there anything there that the defense is going to grab onto to say the police officer screwed up?’ Because I want to know those things up front before I charge something and lose a lot of evidence.”

Many police officers don’t like that, she said, because they feel Caloia isn’t as friendly as possible.

“I think that’s what we need here, is to make the system work,” Caloia said.

When asked about Colorado’s marijuana “experiment,” Caloia said possession and use charges have increased with the 18-to-21 age group, but alcohol cases have decreased with the same demographic.

“The juvenile cases (involving marijuana), I believe, have increased because it’s just more available,” Caloia said. “You can ask your 21-year-old brother, ‘Hey, go buy some marijuana for me,’ and he can.”

Caloia oversees 13 lawyers and 20 support staff. A resident of the Roaring Fork Valley since 1988, she owned a private practice in Glenwood Springs until winning her current seat in 2012.