Office Politics

The race is on for Boulder County District Attorney.

The race for Boulder County District Attorney is taking place under the shadow of Alex Hunter, who has held the job for 28 years. For the past four of those years, Hunter and his previously off-the-radar office have come under glaring public scrutiny for the DA's handling of the murder of JonBenét Ramsey.

"That office is a national disgrace," says one former Boulder cop, who's now living in California but still hears all the jokes about justice, Boulder style.

Mary Keenan, the Democratic candidate for DA, has worked for Hunter for fifteen years and spent the last ten prosecuting sexual assaults. "She had been raised professionally by Alex Hunter," says her opponent, Dave Sanderson. "She was hired by him in 1985, and she's been trained by him ever since -- and in a very closed, narrow, single-focus atmosphere. She has practiced only in Boulder courts, only in front of Boulder judges, only with fellow Boulder district attorneys, only against Boulder criminal defense attorneys. She knows no other system. She knows no other way."

Law and order: Mary Keenan wants to be Boulder's first new DA in 28 years.
Law and order: Mary Keenan wants to be Boulder's first new DA in 28 years.
Can a Republican win in Boulder? Dave Sanderson plans to find out.
Can a Republican win in Boulder? Dave Sanderson plans to find out.

Many of the criticisms leveled against Hunter have involved his office's unwillingness or inability to prosecute crimes; the Ramsey murder is just the most visible in a long string of such cases ("He Aims to Plea," September 23, 1998). But in many quarters, Keenan herself is regarded as the exception to Hunter's deal-making rule. "I think she is the only clean one left there," says Sandy Long, who worked some early cases with Keenan and now runs the home-detention program at the Boulder County Jail for the sheriff's department. "She's not real tolerant of laziness, not preparing for a case, giving up a case."

Nonetheless, Keenan has the support of most of the attorneys in the office, several of whom have contributed to her campaign. One of Hunter's oldest and closest colleagues, Bill Wise, gave $800; Pete Hofstrom coughed up $400. (Another contributor, to the tune of $250, is defense attorney Craig Truman, currently representing a man whom Keenan will prosecute for sexual assault against several young girls.) Keenan is endorsed by former Boulder police chief Tom Koby, who resigned after a no-confidence vote by fellow officers; current police chief Mark Beckner; Adams County District Attorney Bob Grant, a member of Hunter's Ramsey team, and -- Ramsey-watchers will be interested to note -- Francesco Beuf, JonBenét's pediatrician and a staunch defender of her parents.

Keenan insists that she and Hunter are "as different as night and day." She says she intends to change the structure of the DA's office, making it less hierarchical and modifying the seniority system. No employee would be assured of his current job; each would be assigned roles according to his strengths and merits and the office's needs. But Keenan also defends Hunter. "You don't get re-elected seven times if you really are not doing anything right," she says. "Alex was at the forefront for many years of programs such as the victims' advocate program, collecting restitution for crime victims, creating and supporting the consumer division of the office, supporting the domestic-violence program. He reflected the values of the community. He was very strong on prevention and rehabilitation."

Keenan is no tougher than her boss when it comes to prosecuting sex offenders who've assaulted children, charges one critic. "She has a very clear record, and she continues to lie about it," says Alan Rosenfeld, a Boulder attorney who specializes in child-assault and child-custody cases around the country. "Mary Keenan gives deferred sentences or probation whenever a man pleads guilty to child sexual assault and has no prior convictions. She gives incredibly soft plea bargains to men who should be locked up for life. She wants people to believe that she has been aggressive in prosecuting child sexual-assault cases, but the facts prove the exact opposite."

Dissatisfied with the answers Keenan gave to his questions at a candidates' forum last spring, Rosenfeld says, he began talking to her Democratic opponent, Trip DeMuth, also a prosecutor in the DA's office at the time. Keenan remembers it differently: She says Rosenfeld had approached her earlier in the year, offered to work for her campaign and been rebuffed.

Together, DeMuth and Rosenfeld went through Keenan's case disposition sheets for the past five years, sorting out the child sexual-abuse cases. Out of 126 cases, according to Rosenfeld's analysis, eight were dismissed; nine were taken to trial, with four of those defendants being convicted and sent to prison; and the rest were plea bargains. Of the latter, fifteen perpetrators went to prison; 43 got probation; 47 got a deferred sentence, and four received what Rosenfeld describes as "light, non-prison sentences" such as home detention or a stay in a halfway house.

But those figures gave no real sense of how prosecutable a case might have been, whether the victims were willing or able to testify, or the exact nature of the assault. So Rosenfeld went to the courthouse and began pulling files at random; he says he discovered a pattern that validated his theory that sentences were very light and prison time seldom given on a first offense, no matter how egregious. These were some of the cases for which Keenan crafted plea bargains:

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