Trial by Ire

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

Ritter also has exposure on DIA, where skeptics will always believe he engineered a laissez-faire investigation to protect higher-ranking Democrats such as Federico Pena and Wellington Webb. His assertion that an astonishing 98 percent of the graduates from Drug Court now lead "drug-free lives" sounds a little bit too much like a claim for a miracle cure. And Ritter also faces questions on the calls he made in two hotly debated recent criminal cases: the shooting of Jeffrey Truax by Denver police and the getaway of prosecutor-turned-killer Duncan Cameron.

The 25-year-old Truax was shot to death in his car by two officers who were responding to reports of an altercation in a nightclub parking lot. Ritter ruled the officers had violated no law, even though they pumped 25 bullets into a car filled with unarmed men and crowd members described as ridiculous an officer's claim that he fired because he was afraid Truax might run over his partner.

Ritter also drew fire for failing to immediately lock up Cameron, who murdered his ex-wife and a good Samaritan who came to her aid in a downtown-Denver parking garage. Cameron, an attorney who had worked as a prosecutor in Denver, spun a web of lies to police, alleging, among other things, that he had gone to a movie by himself and slept in his mother's garage the night of the killings. But prosecutors were still waiting on blood tests to confirm the identity of the attacker and had eyewitness statements that veteran chief deputy Mike Little, who was assigned to the case, describes as "all over the map." After Ritter decided there wasn't sufficient probable cause to arrest Cameron, the former prosecutor blew town, heading for the Mexican border with $10,000 in cash, a passport and a loaded revolver in his rental car. His getaway attempt was foiled when a California highway patrolman pulled him over for having a loose license plate and Cameron--who still hadn't been named in a Colorado warrant--shot himself to death, apparently convinced he was considered a fugitive.

"The fact of the matter is, we did not have probable cause to arrest Duncan Cameron," insists Ritter. But Silverman--who has angered former colleague Little by suggesting the office dragged its heels--has had a field day with the case. He says prosecutors throw people in jail every day with far less probable cause than existed in the Cameron case. "If it had been a person of color, very soon after he said, 'I slept in my mother's garage,' he would have been asked to assume the position," says Silverman.

Ritter came into the race with a huge advantage: He's the Democratic candidate in a town where Republicans have been on the run since the McNichols era and, with the exception of a bartender who surprised even himself by winning a seat on the Denver Election Commission, elected Independents have been virtually non-existent. The question now is whether he'll consolidate that position or fritter it away. Ritter has lined up endorsements from Governor Romer, Norm Early and most of the Denver City Council, along with a $500 campaign contribution from the well-heeled Democratic law firm of Brownstein Hyatt Farber & Strickland. He enjoys wide support in the city's business and legal establishments, which view him as a source of civic stability and may yet come to his rescue with late infusions of campaign cash.

But a recent telephone poll conducted by Ciruli's firm showed Ritter leading Silverman by only 10 percentage points--42 percent to 32 percent. That leaves Silverman well within striking distance. And one thing Ritter's never been able to claim in this race is the momentum. In the Ciruli poll, for instance, Ritter was running fifteen points behind fellow Democrats Bill Clinton and Diana DeGette--a sign, Ciruli says, that he not only may have a problem with name recognition but that voters may be keeping their options open.

Though Denver is known as a city where negative campaigning can spell doom for a candidate--witness Mary DeGroot's recent attempt to get elected by applying her magnifying glass to the many warts of Wellington Webb--Silverman's hard-line approach hasn't hurt him in the pocketbook. In the last reporting period, he outraised Ritter by more than two to one, landing $1,000 contributions from cable-TV magnate Bill Daniels and railroad tycoon Philip Anschutz, as well as a string of even fatter checks from Cherry Hills Village addresses. Silverman enjoys the support of both millionaire Democrat Myron "Mickey" Miller, who has hosted President Bill Clinton during trips to Denver, and from oilman Bruce Benson, the city's Republican kingpin and former GOP gubernatorial candidate.

The power brokers behind Silverman have allowed him to hit the air with the campaign's first TV ads last week. True to form, they were attack ads, ripping Ritter for the DA's handling of George Danley, a convicted drug offender who, after "graduating" from the Denver Drug Court in a deal approved by Ritter, went on to stab to death a seventeen-year-old boy named Ernie Encinas, who allegedly vandalized Danley's home with a friend. Danley, who Silverman says was high on heroin the night of the stabbing, beat the rap by claiming that, even though the boys were armed with only a bottle and a stick, he chased them down the street and stabbed them because he feared the gang members planned to kill him. Silverman, who was on call the night of the killing and witnessed Danley's videotaped confession--which he says came only after Danley and his brother first conspired to lie about the evening's events--recommended that Danley be charged with second-degree murder. Ritter overruled him. The DA says the facts of the case are consistent with Danley's claim--belated as it was--that he acted in self-defense. He denies Silverman's suggestion that Danley's videotaped confession provides ample reason for a jury to convict. But he refuses to call for the release of the tape, which remains in the hands of the police detective who investigated the case. Says Silverman, in a typical burst of bravado, "If Bill Ritter releases that tape, I'm going to be Denver's next district attorney."

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