The Punisher

Censured but defiant, Carol Chambers goes after habitual criminals -- and cops, judges and lawyers -- like no other district attorney. But at what cost?

As the moment of his sentencing approaches, Tristan Gilmour sits petulantly in an Arapahoe County courtroom. His put-upon attorney, deputy public defender Justin Bogan, wants him to read a pre-sentencing report, but Gilmour is having none of it.

Cuffed and clad in jailhouse orange, Gilmour is a baby-faced 21-year-old with thinning hair and a pile of theft and check-fraud charges collected over the past three years. In the past he's wound up with probation and short sentences in community corrections, but now his situation is complicated by his unexcused absence from a halfway house. Just walking away from community corrections can result in a new felony charge for 'escape,' but Gilmour doesn't seem to grasp the full gravity of his situation. He sprawls in his chair, staring blankly ahead, detached.

'Please read this,' Bogan insists, waving the pre-sentencing report at him.

Frank Vasquez was facing a 48-year stretch as a habitual criminal.
Frank Vasquez was facing a 48-year stretch as a habitual criminal.
Carol Chambers was the unlikely victor in the 2004 race for DA in the 18th Judicial District.
Carol Chambers was the unlikely victor in the 2004 race for DA in the 18th Judicial District.

In another jurisdiction, Gilmour's walkaway might result in a year in prison, then another crack at a halfway house. But this is Arapahoe County. The escape charge, on top of his prior felonies, means he's eligible for habitual-criminal status -- the 'bitch,' as convicts call it. Habitual charges can triple or quadruple the maximum sentence for a felon's latest offense. And Carol Chambers, the district attorney of the 18th Judicial District -- which includes Arapahoe, Douglas, Elbert and Lincoln counties -- has been bitching walkaways like they were serial rapists.

'Read this,' Bogan says. 'If we don't resolve this today, they will file habitual criminal charges tomorrow. That's 48 years. You will die in prison.'

Gilmour frowns. He sits up and begins to read.

What are you going to ask for?" "That's a good question."

Another day, another Arapahoe County courtroom. Defense attorney Jim O'Connor and Deputy District Attorney Steven Fauver shuffle papers, getting ready for the sentencing hearing of Frank "Junior" Vasquez, another halfway house walkaway.

The two confer over how many prior felonies Vasquez has. O'Connor insists his client, who's 52 years old, has only three "F5s," or low-level felony convictions.

"And one F3," Fauver responds.

"No," O'Connor says. "You're talking about the one that was deferred."

"That he failed to complete."

"No. He did. Look at the bottom of page three."

Fauver studies the pre-sentencing report. "Yeah, you're right," he says. "I'll probably ask for the middle."

The middle, in the case of People v. Vasquez, is eight years in prison. Initially, prosecutors had demanded that Vasquez take a plea deal for sixteen years or face a possible 48-year stretch as a habitual criminal. Like Tristan Gilmour, Vasquez was urged by his attorney to plead guilty to the escape charge, which carries a sentencing range of four to twelve years, before the district attorney's people got around to filing the habitual charges that could quadruple his sentence. This way, his fate is in the hands of the judge, not the DA.

Judge Valeria Spencer takes the bench, and the hearing begins.

"This kind of case is very troublesome to me," says O'Connor, who heads the public defender's office in the 18th. "Since at least 1988, escapes such as these, walkaways from community corrections, have had a very standard result: one year on the first escape, two years on the second.... Judge, I'm asking you to apply some equity here."

Vasquez's three prior cases, convictions for criminal trespass and a previous escape, all stem from his crack addiction, O'Connor explains. His client has "life management skill issues," but he'd been doing well at the halfway house for six months before he stumbled. He was working and paying his bills. He was tested for drugs nineteen times, and all the tests came back negative. Then he hit the pipe again, didn't report back to the halfway house, and was arrested thirty days later. The prosecution's "draconian policy," he suggests, could discourage other wavering offenders like Vasquez from ever giving themselves up.

Wearing a belly chain and the usual jail scrubs, Vasquez stands meekly by his attorney. When it's his turn to speak, his voice trembles. "Your honor, I'm ashamed," he says. "I'm very, very scared. I know what I did was wrong. I've made a shambles of my life.... I know I have to go back to prison. I'm just asking that the court have some mercy and compassion on this sentence. All I ask is that you don't see me as a lost cause."

Fauver isn't budging. He wants eight years. "The district attorney in this jurisdiction has determined that certain cases need to be looked at harder," he says. "I take exception to the argument that we have a draconian policy."

"We've got a man who walked away from a halfway house for thirty days," O'Connor replies. "They wanted to give him 48 years. That's more than a year for each day. It's draconian. It's mean. "

A former prosecutor herself, Judge Spencer agrees that, in her experience, a walkaway like Vasquez would get a two-year sentence. Eight years, she tells Fauver, "is way too much for someone who walked away with a non-violent criminal history."

She sentences Vasquez to four years in prison -- the minimum she can give him, absent any mitigating factors in his escape. That's double what he probably would have received in a plea-bargain deal in Denver, but it beats the lock-him-away-until-he's-dead rap the DA was trying to hand him. He embraces his lawyer and shudders with relief.

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