Trial by Ire

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

Ritter has fired back at times, insisting he has increased the number of felony prosecutions by 25 percent and accusing Silverman of distorting his record. But when he has tried to fight on Silverman's terms, the strategy has often backfired.

After Silverman said during an August 30 debate that he had talked with DIA grand jurors who described the presentation of evidence by the DA's office as "laughable," Ritter took the bait. At a September 5 press conference, Ritter said his office had conducted an investigation to determine whether any of the grand jurors had in fact violated their vow of secrecy. In a "District Attorney's Report on Alleged Grand Juror Misconduct" submitted to the court, he reported that every member of the jury had denied speaking about the case with Silverman. Asked whether he was calling Silverman a liar, Ritter replied, "I'm saying I do not believe Craig Silverman had a conversation with those grand jurors."

Within 24 hours, however, Silverman produced a grand juror--albeit one who demanded to remain anonymous--for the press. The woman's status as a juror was verified by reporters, and her appearance, incognito, on the Peter Boyles radio show had a circus-like feel. For Ritter, it was the worst of both worlds--not only did the woman's claims reaggravate doubts about the DIA probe, but his report boldly reassuring the judge that no one had talked raised questions about his office's ability to conduct a simple investigation. Ritter has since declined to pursue the matter, saying he doesn't want to turn the juror into a "scapegoat."

Despite the old legal saw that any prosecutor worth his salt can get a grand jury to indict a ham sandwich, Ritter says he's not disappointed that prosecutors Gerald Rafferty and Phil Parrott found nothing illegal in a $4 billion smorgasbord of political pork. "I'm comfortable we did everything we could do at DIA," he says.

Ritter isn't used to being on the hot seat. Known as a golden boy during his days as a chief deputy under Early, he was reportedly the favorite of Early's right-hand man, Chuck Lepley, who allegedly groomed him for the top spot. Despite his teacher's-pet status, Ritter was well-liked by his colleagues, in large part because he tended to concentrate on his cases and avoid publicity. He drew sensitive assignments, trying an Aurora cop who shot his wife's divorce lawyer in open court and traveling to distant Baca County to take on rebellious local farmers who'd attacked the county sheriff. For that trial, Ritter picked a jury in a hunting trailer while members of the Posse Comitatus milled around outside. Unlike Silverman, who has prosecuted some of the city's most notorious criminals--from Capitol Hill rapist Quintin Wortham to death-row murderer Rodriguez--Ritter didn't summon reporters to discuss the results.

Veteran Denver prosecutors who haveve worked with both men have been stunned by the ferocity of Silverman's campaign, which they say constitutes an attack not just on Ritter, but on principles of operation that have been in effect within the office since the Tooley era. For instance, Silverman has torn into Ritter for telling prosecutors they're obligated to hand over to defense attorneys any information they uncover that may discredit a suspect's alibi. Silverman says prosecutors should hold on to that information and use it at trial to prove the person is lying. "In the process of taking the Bill Ritter high road, you're subjecting the victim to the low road," he argues. But Ritter, following an example set by both Tooley and Early, advises prosecutors to turn over such information before trial, citing the state's extremely liberal discovery rules as a guideline. "There's no excuse to be cute here," says Ritter. "We're not losing cases over here because people turned over too much information."

In what may prove to be the core issue of the campaign, Ritter also questions whether traditionally progressive Denver is ready for the take-no-prisoners approach advocated by Silverman. "Let's face it, this is Denver," says pollster Floyd Ciruli, who has monitored the DA's race. "It's a very liberal city." Apparently with that fact in mind, Ritter's campaign literature describes him as "one tough district attorney"--but takes pains to add that "he's not a hothead or a self-promoting grandstander."

Ritter backers convinced that their candidate's decency is self-evident seem shocked by what they describe as the Denver media's pro-Silverman bias--a bias they say is evidenced by the largely soft-edged criticism the challenger received for making Ritter's religion a campaign issue. But Silverman has made headway not just because he throws red meat to journalists but because the public finds Ritter genuinely susceptible on certain key issues.

First there's the death penalty, where Ritter has performed a flip-flop. When he was appointed by Romer, Ritter said he had personal reservations about the death penalty but would feel duty-bound to seek it in appropriate cases. Today he says he isn't opposed on personal grounds but is hesitant to ask for death because Denver juries have traditionally balked at pulling the trigger. Ritter's decision not to seek the death penalty for Michael Quezada, an L.A. gang member who came to Denver and mowed down three local men in a nightclub parking lot, drew blistering criticism from Scott Carbaugh, an attorney with the Los Angeles DA's office who told reporters he "couldn't believe" it. But Ritter has asked for death in the case of Jon Morris, a man charged in the vicious murder of a five-year-old girl--a move that's become yet another contentious campaign issue following Silverman's suggestion that it was prompted by election-year politics.

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