Letter: Compassion is essential on the bench | AspenTimes.com

Letter: Compassion is essential on the bench

The perennial malcontent Bruno Kirchenwitz has written another ridiculous, ill-informed letter (“Judge seems unstable,” Letters to the Editor, The Aspen Times, March 15), this time attacking a well-respected and dedicated member of our community, Judge Erin Fernandez-Ely.

I am a local attorney, and although I normally do not practice trial law, I have had the honor of representing a client in her courtroom. I saw a judge who listens to both sides and makes well-reasoned decisions based on the facts. Fernandez-Ely is a person of enormous intelligence and compassion, and she truly cares about our community. She goes above and beyond to make the judicial system deliver true justice in our district. She created a pretrial case-management program for the Pitkin County Court and helped establish the mental-health “wellness court” in Aspen. She has taken steps to implement restorative justice, which is a system of criminal justice that focuses on the rehabilitation of offenders through reconciliation with victims and the community at large. She has worked tirelessly to make the judicial system more responsive to the needs of our unique resort community.

As to Kirchenwitz’s quoting and ridiculing Fernandez-Ely when she said that she would let Meleyna Kistner talk to her about what to do, unlike he does, I would not presume to know what this articulate, reasoned and compassionate judge was thinking. However, if I had to venture a guess, I would say that she meant that over the course of the trial, she got to know who Meleyna was as a person. In the sentencing phase of a trial, judges try to take into account what the victim has to say. Unfortunately, the victim in the case could not testify, so Fernandez-Ely was saying that she would let what she learned about Meleyna as a person and what the judge thought that Meleyna would say guide her in her sentencing deliberations. Thus, she is doing her best to give the victim a voice.

Kirchenwitz accuses Fernandez-Ely of being “soft-hearted,” but those of us in the legal community, and those who read about her cases, know different. Fernandez-Ely is quite capable of handing out harsh punishment when the facts dictate it, and she is also capable of compassion when it is called for.

It is people such as Kirchenwitz who scream about victims’ rights, and there is no doubt that the impact on the victim and the family should be taken into account. However, what Kirchenwitz completely underestimates is the difficulty that judges face in cases such as this one. Lacking the years of hard study in law school and years of experience that Fernandez-Ely has, it is easy for him to pound his fist and yell, “Hang ’em high.” However, the law is seldom so simplistic, and I am glad that we have someone of Fernandez-Ely’s caliber sitting on the bench in this case. I hope that her attempt at giving Meleyna a voice gives some solace to Meleyna’s family.

Cavanaugh O’Leary


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