Is assistant DA overloaded with work?
December 5, 2006
Two high-profile, Aspen criminal cases that appeared to be strong have unraveled over the last month, raising questions about whether the 9th Judicial District Attorney’s office in Pitkin County is staffed properly.In mid-November, Stephen Harrison pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor in order to avoid trial on sex assault charges of getting in bed naked with an 8-year-old girl. District Attorney Martin Beeson felt Harrison had committed a more serious crime but agreed that the case could not be won. Then this week, Ronald Young, a suspect in fraud and murder cases captured as a result of the television program “America’s Most Wanted,” walked free because District Judge James Boyd ruled that the case relied too heavily on hearsay evidence. Again, Beeson and Gail Nichols, the assistant district attorney in charge of Pitkin County, claimed that a heavy caseload had nothing to do with what happened.Beeson and Nichols say the cases were handled appropriately. In Harrison’s case, the girl’s testimony came into doubt after she changed a key point. The father of the 8-year-old and some members of the Aspen Police Department say the DA’s office in Pitkin County is overloaded and unable to compete with the kind of money that Harrison, a wealthy resident of Marin County, Calif., was able to spend on his defense. Nichols and Beeson both denied that lack of resources had anything to do with dropping the case.Beeson and Nichols say they plan to appeal Boyd’s ruling in Young’s case, and again denied that a lack of investigative resources led to the dismissal. But the fact remains that the office has fewer resources on hand than it has had recently.Two-county dutyThe 9th Judicial District encompasses three counties – Pitkin, Garfield and Rio Blanco – where attorneys are assigned based on numbers of cases. And while Rio Blanco has half the population of Pitkin County, it has roughly the same amount of crime. In the late 1980s, Mac Myers, who was eventually elected district attorney, had Gail Nichols’ job as assistant district attorney in Pitkin County. At that time, the office consisted of two attorneys, two legal assistants and an investigator. There are two attorneys and a legal assistant now.Nichols, with two fewer employees on hand in Pitkin County, has had to cover cases in Meeker, 2 1/2 hours from Aspen. And it’s no secret Nichols puts in long weekend and night hours, often logging 60-plus-hour weeks. Further, Nichols depends on local law enforcement for investigations because the two investigators in the Glenwood Springs office rarely come upvalley. Nichols said 100 percent of her investigating support comes from local law enforcement. “Even with one or two extra investigators in the DA’s office that wouldn’t be enough,” Beeson said. “I believe you would find that is true in every district.”Of course the district could use more investigators and more legal help, Beeson said. He said there is only so much that can be expected from the three counties and, for the most part, they meet funding requests.”It’s not just me and it’s not just prosecutor offices, it’s systemic statewide for government in general and government-funded programs,” Beeson said. “We scramble to find funding sources.”Nichols’ reputationEven local defense attorney John Van Ness, who doesn’t exactly like prosecutors, said he has huge respect for Nichols. “Gail is no rookie,” Van Ness said. “I have a lot of confidence in Gail, she’s first-class as DAs go.”Beeson, Myers and numerous members of the Aspen Police Department and Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office said they think she is an amazing prosecutor. Beeson readily agreed, however, that the Aspen office doesn’t have enough help. He is trying to get a new full-time position in the office but, he said, funding is always a difficulty. He did note that productivity in Nichols’ office may have gone down with two recent turnovers.”We have an office person who is a jack of all trades – the receptionist, the assistant, the victim’s advocate,” Beeson said. “We’re working on ways to try to get some help up to Aspen.”In order to get another position, the funding will have to come from local, state or federal grants. A big part of the district attorney’s job is getting funds by writing grant requests. “It’s not fun,” Beeson said. “It’s a neverending job. It’s a thankless job.”The district was recently denied a state grant that would have funded a victim’s advocate in Aspen. It’s a necessary position because Beeson wants to be as helpful as possible getting victims through the justice system without forcing the victim to relive the crime over and over in the court system. For now, however, it falls on the shoulders of Aspen’s office person. “Could we use more resources? Absolutely,” Beeson said. “We leave no stone unturned when looking for those funds.”Joel Stonington’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.orgThe Aspen Times, Aspen, Colo.