Trial by Ire

The candidates in the Denver's DA's race refuse to come to order.

About the only area where Silverman can fairly be called a conservative is on criminal-justice issues. He actively supports the death penalty in appropriate first-degree-murder cases, while Ritter has waffled on the issue. Silverman endorses filing "habitual criminal" charges--which tack on additional prison time for repeat felons--whenever humanly possible; Ritter believes prosecutors should use their professional judgment in deciding whether to threaten defendants with the so-called "big bitch" and "little bitch." And in a twist that has proved doubly frustrating for the Ritter campaign, the areas where Silverman seems most vulnerable--namely, what appeals courts have termed his "misplaced zeal" to win cases and what present and former colleagues describe as a sometimes disturbing personal aggressiveness--could prove an ironic plus in the eyes of voters.

The long history of Silverman's troubles with the state's appeals courts has become required reading for attorneys in the state public defender's office. That agency has attacked him in more than twenty appellate briefs filed with the Colorado Court of Appeals and the Colorado Supreme Court. Last year public defenders even asked the Colorado Supreme Court to punish Silverman for his long record of making inappropriate comments during closing arguments. In a highly unusual move, they asked the court to send a message to Silverman by overturning the conviction of a man he'd prosecuted for shooting another man on the 16th Street Mall. The court refused to cast doubt on Silverman's entire career, a move that effectively would have finished him as a prosecutor. But the justices did reverse the conviction of LaShawn Harris, finding that Silverman's metaphorical comparison of the defendant's "unchecked aggression" to Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait had improperly swayed the jury. "Our system of justice cannot tolerate verdicts based on bias and prejudice rather than on the relevant facts and applicable law," wrote the majority in its opinion.

By the time the Harris case arrived on its doorstep, the high court was already familiar with Silverman's courtroom dramatics. In the 1989 case of burglar James Keith Jones, the Colorado Court of Appeals accused Silverman of making so many "ill-advised and improper comments" that it found no need to assess the prejudicial effect of each isolated remark, among them the prosecutor's claim that Jones's own defense attorney didn't really believe he was innocent. In the 1990 case of drug offender Herbert Dorsey, the Court of Appeals found that Silverman had denied the defendant a fair trial by making "repeated improper and inflammatory comments" such as telling the jury he thought Dorsey had perjured himself on the witness stand and informing the panel that a police officer who testified against Dorsey "wasn't lying."

Silverman notes that Harris, Jones and Dorsey were convicted at their second trials. He points out that in each case, trial judges initially approved of his remarks--"It's not just me," he says--but were then overturned by the high courts. And he accuses the public defender's office of gunning for him ever since he obtained a death sentence against Denver torture killer Frank Rodriguez in 1986--a claim that is backed up by former state assistant attorney general Doug Friednash, now a Democratic state representative. "They clearly, in my view, targeted him," says Friednash of the defense attorneys.

However, several of Silverman's former colleagues at the DA's office say his pattern of pushing the envelope is troubling. Karen Steinhauser, who went to law school with Ritter and Silverman and now heads the DA's juvenile unit, says she'll refuse to work for Silverman if he's elected. "I don't know of any other prosecutor in this office who has been reversed for prosecutorial misconduct," Steinhauser says. "I think we all want to win our cases, but at what cost? If winning our case means getting reversed and putting the victims and their families through another trial some years down the road, to me that's losing."

Denver prosecutor Mitch Morrissey, the son of a former Democratic state representative and grandson of the U.S. Attorney in Denver under Franklin D. Roosevelt, is equally dubious of Silverman's methods. "We don't do this job the same way," says Morrissey. "The lines are set; I stay away from them, and he gets as close as he can and then leans. I've got a problem with that."

Morrissey says Silverman's competitive nature has led him to adopt a win-at-all-costs attitude toward trials--a dangerous habit, he says, for a prosecutor, who is obligated not just to win but to seek justice. He points out that, far from making his comments in the heat of passion, Silverman carefully scripts his closing arguments, even at times recording them and playing them back for optimum effect. "He's a man who knows the rules," says Morrissey, "and he intentionally gets close to them and flaunts them."

Former Denver prosecutor Dave Heckenbach, who worked with Ritter and Silverman for years, says he worries that Silverman is so aggressive he'll "abuse every bit of power he is given" if elected.

"Craig does fight hard," adds Heckenbach. "He hates to lose. And on his good days, he could make Machiavelli blush."

A willingness to be bloodied in the pursuit of criminal convictions, however, is not necessarily a bad thing for a man trying to get elected. And that is a fact of which Silverman is well aware. Far from ducking the prosecutorial-misconduct issue, he included a photo of LaShawn Harris in a full-page newspaper advertisement that featured a lineup of felons he'd put behind bars--and who wouldn't be attending his campaign kickoff because "it would be against their convictions." (In his haste to get the ad into print, Silverman also accidentally printed the picture of an innocent man, to whom he has since paid a cash settlement.) The chief threat to the Ritter campaign, which enters the race as the odds-on favorite, is that voters will be attracted, not repelled, by Silverman's pit bull approach.

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