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?

Vasquez dodged the bitch. So did Gilmour, who ended up with six years. It's not uncommon for district attorneys to threaten a chronic offender with habitual charges when plea negotiations break down; the prospect of a huge sentence for a minor felony becomes a form of leverage. But Arapahoe prosecutors are now filing habitual counts earlier in the process, in an effort to force more of the cases to trial or extract ever-stiffer plea arrangements. In DA Chambers's hands, the ultimate sentence-enhancer is no bluff.

"The only reason to plea-bargain many of our cases is because we do not have sufficient courts available to try them," Chambers wrote in an e-mail to her chief deputy last summer. "If we have trial weeks that are unused, we should be trying as many habitual offenders as we can. Please keep the offers on these cases tough and encourage them to go to trial."

And more of the cases are being filed than ever before. In 2006, the 18th Judicial District filed habitual criminal charges in 232 felony cases, far more than any other DA's office in the state. That's ten times as many bitch cases as Denver handled last year, and four times as many as the 18th itself filed in 2005.

Former prosecutor Richard Bloch think the "bitch" is getting a real workout.
Bryce Boyer
Former prosecutor Richard Bloch think the "bitch" is getting a real workout.
A onetime deputy to Carol Chambers, Chris LeRoi is now a defense attorney.
Bryce Boyer
A onetime deputy to Carol Chambers, Chris LeRoi is now a defense attorney.

Informed of these numbers, DA Chambers expresses only mild surprise. The Draco behind her office's draconian new policy thought there would be more.

"I guess we have fewer habitual criminals than I thought," she says.

There's nothing subtle or tentative about the way Carol Chambers approaches the law. No hedging, no hesitation and no second-guessing about what the voters wanted when they made her the most powerful law-enforcement official in the metro area's sprawling southeastern suburbs. There's just her view on what is right and wrong, and let the chips fall where they may.

Her towering sense of confidence in her own judgment was on display last fall in a Denver courtroom, during a disciplinary hearing in which the DA found herself in the role of the accused (see story, page 20). Acting on a grievance filed by Jonathan Steiner, the state Office of Attorney Regulation Counsel had charged Chambers with several ethics violations: lying, using her office to threaten criminal charges in a civil matter, and engaging in conduct "prejudicial to the administration of justice" -- all because of one phone call she made early in 2006 to Steiner, a collection attorney who was engaged in a dispute with an Englewood city official over $320 in bounced checks.

Another prosecutor might have looked sheepish in her place, having to explain why she'd bothered to insert herself in such a petty wrangle. But Chambers didn't project the slightest note of apology. Not even when confronted with the voice-mail message she'd left for Steiner, telling him she'd had "a lot of complaints from victims of identity theft that you are pressuring them" and was "looking at investigating this with the grand jury." Asked why she'd left such an ominous message -- when, in fact, she'd had just one complaint about Steiner -- Chambers just shrugged. She was referring to complaints about the collection industry in general, she explained.

Then why bring up the grand jury at all?

"I meant to get his attention," she said.

Since her upset victory in the Republican primary in 2004, Chambers has been getting a lot of people's attention. No other rookie DA in memory has cut such a wide and acrimonious swath through the state's criminal-justice system, discarding or ignoring long-established protocols and taboos. She's filed grievances against defense attorneys she considers unprofessional and purged her own staff of elements she considered disloyal. She's berated the county commissioners over her salary and criticized cops freely. She's even taken on the bench in Arapahoe County, complaining of bias and unnecessary delays, and ordering her staff to time the judges' breaks -- an extraordinary step that incited a small mutiny among her deputies.

"Carol wanted to go in there and shake things up," says Christopher LeRoi, a former judge and prosecutor who left the DA's office one year into the Chambers regime. "She wanted to be a fly in the ointment. She's said she's fine with being a one-term DA."

While Chambers says she will run for a second term, she's not trying to curry favor, either. "My objective has never been to make everybody like me so that I'm re-elected," she says. "If you're going to do the things that need to be done, you're going to generate controversy. I'm going to do what I was elected to do."

She has described herself as an activist, on a mission to bring more accountability to the system -- particularly to its wrongdoers. In an age when justice is often delayed and attenuated, the message has its appeal. Two weeks ago she was widely praised after becoming the first DA in the state to obtain a first-degree murder verdict in a road-rage case: Jason Reynolds, whose maniac behavior on E-470 resulted in the deaths of two other drivers, now faces life in prison without parole.

Yet the crusades she seems to care the most about have also led to some of her most bizarre moves. As she tells it, it was her zeal to advocate for victims, particularly those who are "revictimized by the system," that prompted her involvement in Steiner's bounced-check case. Last December, the three-member disciplinary hearing board cleared Chambers on the charges of making false statements and misusing her office, but ruled that she should be publicly censured -- the first Colorado DA to be so reprimanded in sixteen years.

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