Beyond Contempt

A judge and a prosecutor in Gilpin County are after a new breed of criminals: jurors and defense attorneys.

The Journal noted, however, that criminal law experts had been "startled" by Barnhill's action. And Grant and jurors'-rights advocates argued that the only thing being endangered was the right of jurors to think for themselves. Some of Kriho's supporters criticized the judge and prosecutor for what they said was a vindictive act.

Defendants in contempt cases have no right to a jury trial; the hearing is before a judge only, even though the accused can be sent to jail if found guilty. Barnhill was set to hear the contempt charges against Kriho, but after a request from Grant, he reluctantly recused himself from the case in favor of Chief District Judge Henry Nieto. Stanley remained as the prosecutor.

Nieto presided over the two-day contempt hearing in early October. As of last week, he still had not rendered a verdict.

While the Kriho case was heating up last summer, Titus Peterson was trying one of his first cases as a newly minted defense attorney in private practice. Peterson, who attended the University of Colorado law school, was admitted to the Colorado bar in 1990 and hired on as a prosecutor in Georgetown shortly thereafter. He ran for a state Senate seat as a Democrat in 1994, garnering just 35 percent of the vote in a losing effort against Golden Republican Sally Hopper. Though opponents have referred to him as a "passionate man" who can be subject to emotional outbursts in court, Peterson has never been publicly disciplined by the Colorado Supreme Court, which governs the conduct of Colorado attorneys.

Peterson's client in last summer's case, Dennis Tyrrell, wasn't an easy assignment. He faced three counts of first-degree assault on a police officer, three counts of felony menacing, and one count each of criminal mischief and third-degree assault, all of which stemmed from a single domestic incident. Black Hawk police told prosecutors that Tyrrell and his girlfriend had been fighting; during the altercation, a glass table was broken and the woman was cut. When officers arrived and told Tyrrell he was under arrest for domestic violence, he reportedly picked up a jagged piece of glass and wielded it as a weapon.

"He made a statement that they were not going to take him out of there," says prosecutor Burback, who was assigned to the case along with Stanley. "He said, 'If you take me out, it will be in a body bag.' He was threatening enough that the officers drew their weapons, and eventually one officer decided to shoot the glass out of [Tyrrell's] hand, which he did." (The bullet also shattered Tyrrell's hand; he was hospitalized after the arrest.)

Peterson took the case at the request of a woman who worked in the Idaho Springs office building where he had set up his private law practice. The woman was a friend of Tyrrell's and had put up her house as collateral for his $50,000 bond. Russ Keener of Central City Bail Bonds had agreed to carry the bond.

Peterson entered his appearance as counsel for the defendant on June 10. Within the space of a month, he'd managed to aggravate Stanley and Burback. Peterson, the prosecutors argued in court, had tried to mislead Gilpin County Sheriff's officers into believing they had to serve subpoenas for Peterson. (Peterson had sent the department an unsigned judge's order requiring it to serve the papers and attached a note requesting that officers "speak with the judge if there is a problem.")

In August, Peterson attempted to personally serve a subpoena on a victim's advocate he wanted to call as a defense witness. Attorneys aren't supposed to serve their own subpoenas. This, too, made the prosecutors' complaint list.

Stanley and Burback also took offense when Peterson subpoenaed several people for a pre-trial hearing in August and then did not call them to testify. The lawyers brought that complaint to Barnhill, who told Peterson to be more specific in issuing his subpoenas so as not to make witnesses wait unnecessarily. The prosecutors claim in their motion for a contempt citation that Peterson disregarded the judge's order, forcing witnesses to cool their heels in the courthouse yet again.

Barnhill also sided with prosecutors when he ruled that Peterson--who had planned to introduce evidence of alleged police brutality by Black Hawk police officers--could not question witnesses about the officers' reputation. In fact, many of the judge's rulings went against Peterson at the pre-trial hearing. At one point, the prosecutors charge, a clearly frustrated Peterson demanded of the judge, "Why don't you just find him guilty right now?" Barnhill dressed Peterson down for the outburst and warned him that such behavior would not be tolerated in his court.

The trial began August 27, and it didn't go much better for Peterson than had the pre-trial hearing. On at least two occasions, Stanley and Burback claim in their motion, Peterson and the judge exchanged unpleasantries, with Peterson threatening to ask that Barnhill be sanctioned for insulting him.

The prosecutors grew angry at trial when Peterson asked his client, "And you had reason to fear the Black Hawk police, didn't you?" That, Stanley and Burback later complained in their contempt motion, "was a blatant attempt...to thwart" Barnhill's earlier ruling that allegations of police misconduct were off-limits. (Defense attorney Pozner says Peterson's apparently improper question may have been cause for an objection, but doesn't appear to him to rise to the level of contempt.)

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