Vendetta

Who's a bigger nuisance -- Douglas Bruce or Denver's property police?

"There was an ongoing municipal-code violation, and since we couldn't locate Mr. Bruce, we had to go the search-warrant route," says Assistant City Attorney Nelson. "And lo and behold, we found he had caused some repairs to be made without a permit, and those repairs were basically a sham. They had thrown some tar paper and shingles on the roof, but the structure had not been repaired. There was still a burnt and cracked cross member that presented an ongoing hazard to anyone climbing on that roof."

Bruce disputes this. "All they found were three things," he says. "First, there was a loose wire. But the building wasn't connected to the power pole. Second, there wasn't a cap on a kitchen [gas] line. If somebody broke in and stuck their nose down the pipe, they might smell gas. The third thing was, because they interrupted the work, they found one cracked rafter out of maybe 25. That was their alleged unsafe conditions."

Bruce had numerous objections to the search warrant, including the photo inspectors used to get it (taken before his roof repairs began) and the affidavit's implication that he'd refused inspectors permission to enter the premises (he was never notified, he insists). He also had a problem with the "neutral magistrate" who had authorized the search: Celeste C de Baca, the same judge who was scheduled to preside over his trial.

Judge C de Baca had denied several requests by Bruce to recuse herself from the case. Bruce cited numerous instances of the judge's alleged bias against him and even submitted affidavits from five witnesses, who described her behavior during preliminary hearings as ranging from irate impatience to outright hostility toward the defendant. "The judge refused to hear any more motions from Mr. Bruce...and said that he would not be allowed to make any more motions for the rest of the entire case," one witness noted. (In the 1996 municipal election, C de Baca narrowly retained her seat on the bench after an evaluation by the Judicial Performance Commission described her as "frequently rude and arrogant" and recommended against her retention.) Bruce didn't see how she could aid the prosecution's effort by signing the warrant, rule on his objections to the warrant -- and still be fair to him at trial.

Despite her ban on defense motions, C de Baca allowed Bruce a hearing on the search warrant the morning the trial was to start. That the hearing was a formality is clear from the transcript; twice the judge states, "After we finish with the motions hearings, we will then be picking a jury." She declared that she had "no idea" whether she'd signed the warrant and said she must have done so as a routine matter when she was the judge "on call" for weekend warrant duty.

Actually, the warrant was signed on a Tuesday. Testimony from a building inspector indicated that he'd gone directly to C de Baca with the warrant rather than submit it to a pool of judges. But that didn't seem to matter. Nothing did. Bruce's motion to quash the search warrant was denied, and his trial began.


Things did not go well for Bruce from the start. Several potential jurors had to be excused when they admitted that they had definite opinions about Bruce's tax activism or his property battles; one even cited his "terrible reputation amongst educators." Explained the almost-juror: "No offense, sir, [but] all I've heard are terrible things about you, and I've sort of cultivated the same attitude."

Judge C de Baca testily cut off Bruce's line of questioning with one witness after another. Rocky Mountain News reporter Bill Scanlon kept a running tally and found that the judge sustained fifty objections by prosecutor Kory Nelson in one day. She called Bruce to the bench repeatedly to chide him about his "breach of decorum" and to warn him that he was putting himself in danger of contempt of court.

Doubtless Bruce exacerbated the situation with his famous abrasiveness. At one point he indicated that he could give the judge "a complete seminar" on the rules of search and seizure, and he had a penchant for interrupting witnesses he was questioning. But other parties acting in their own defense have been shown considerably more leeway in county court proceedings, and the judge's obvious irritation with him would later become a major part of Bruce's hefty appeals filings.

His efforts to present evidence of a vendetta, as well as to show that even city inspectors didn't consider the building to be as unsafe as the prosecution made it out to be, were routinely squashed. During cross-examination of one inspector, the judge found, Bruce had "violated the Court's direct order" not to ask about a particular citation, leaving him open to a contempt charge. Bruce disagreed about the nature of his question, calling it a "miscommunication."

The worst blow-up, though, came at the end of the third day of the trial, as Bruce was making his closing argument. C de Baca had refused to let the jurors go for the evening, insisting that she'd keep them there until midnight if necessary to reach a verdict: "We're going to stay for deliberation until this case is completed tonight."

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