By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
By Michael Roberts
By Melanie Asmar
Whatever else one might say about Lynne Hufnagel, she has her own mind. The prosecutor who got cold feet in her courtroom eleven years ago found out just how independent she could be. So did the defendant, Christopher Rodriguez.
Along with his brother Frank, Chris Rodriguez had been charged with first-degree murder in the heinous stabbing death of bookkeeper Lorraine Martelli. Two days into jury deliberations, both sides came to Hufnagel with an eleventh-hour plea bargain: Chris Rodriguez would plead guilty to all counts in return for a sentence of life in prison plus 72 years, thereby dodging the gas chamber. The prosecution was fearful that the jury might come back with something less or that the case would be on appeal forever.
Hufnagel turned them down cold. No appeals court would affirm such a plea, she said, given the "duress" Rodriguez was under while waiting for the verdict. On this occasion, the judge did indeed trust the jury to come through, even when the prosecution didn't. As it turned out, the jury refused to hand down a sentence of death--that would be Frank's fate--but did find Chris guilty of murder, kidnapping and sexual assault. Hufnagel gave him life plus eighty-eight years.
Such calls have earned Hufnagel a reputation for the kind of decisiveness one expects from a judge. She's always exhibited a towering self-confidence on the bench, as well as a marked intolerance for lawyers she considers ill-prepared or not well-versed in case law. That attitude may stem from her own background as a hardworking litigator--she was a Legal Aid Society staff attorney, a juvenile-court referee and a prosecutor in Jefferson County before Governor Richard Lamm appointed her to Denver District Court in 1981--but in any event, it has earned her admirers on both sides of the courtroom.
"She's one of the brighter judges on the bench," insists ex-prosecutor Buckley. "Sometimes she's a little harsh with people, but on balance, the cases move along fairly swiftly. You know she's going to be decisive and not take everything under advisement, like some judges do."
"I've found her to be prepared to torque off either side," says John Tatum, a defense attorney who's appeared in Hufnagel's court on several occasions. "When she's been abrupt or impatient with me, it's typically been a situation in which she's already studied the issue."
Others, though, say that Hufnagel's manner can be intimidating--bullying, even--particularly in criminal cases in which she seems to have formed strong opinions about the defendant's guilt. Keith Gross was a young public defender when he got crosswise with the judge in the early 1980s over a case of sexual assault on a child. Representing the man charged with the crime, Gross wanted to introduce evidence that the victim's mother had a boyfriend who was a likely alternate suspect, but Hufnagel ruled against him repeatedly.
"She was incredibly fierce about it," recalls Gross, who's now in private practice. "She kept blocking [the defense], lecturing me in front of the jury to stay out of that area, threatening to hold me in contempt if I went further."
The trial ended in a hung jury. After his client was convicted in a second trial, Judge Hufnagel "basically 86'd me from her courtroom," Gross says. "She said something like, 'You're not going to practice in this court anymore.'"
Noting the similarities between his banishment and that of Handley, Gross adds, "I'm upset that she's still doing the same garbage. I wish the public defender's office had come to my defense, but they reassigned me to another courtroom."
Sex crimes involving children are invariably among the most emotional and difficult cases to try, but for Hufnagel they have been a particular ordeal. For years she made a practice of escorting child victims to and from the witness stand, putting her arm around them and comforting them, over defense objections that such special treatment by the presiding judge could have a prejudicial effect on jurors. In 1989 the Colorado Court of Appeals ruled that such actions "could have been perceived by the jurors as an indication that the trial judge believed in the credibility of the children who were testifying" and reversed the sex-assault conviction of Frank Travis Green.
The ruling prompted at least four other reversals of child-molester convictions in Hufnagel's court on similar grounds. Critics say the episode shows how Hufnagel's insistence on doing things her way can have the opposite effect of what was intended: The reversals raised the prospect that the victims she'd sought to comfort might have to testify all over again. As far as can be determined, though, the cases were subsequently plea-bargained, with little or no change in the sentences received.
Buckley believes the Court of Appeals did Hufnagel wrong in this instance. "Any intelligent juror is going to decide the child's credibility on what he says, not on what the judge does," he says.
Rowe Stayton, a defense attorney who specializes in sex-assault cases--including one in Hufnagel's court that was reversed because of the Green decision--says Hufnagel shouldn't have escorted the children personally, but her error was no worse than that of others. "I have never seen any other judge do that," he says, "but I've seen other judges do things to calm children. You expect that. No one wants to treat the child roughly."