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?

Her response was to hold a press conference and dispute the panel's findings -- even while admitting that the decision "was as favorable to me as it could have been, short of being a dismissal." She didn't file an appeal in the case before this week's deadline and will pay $1,600 in court costs out of her own pocket. Defending Chambers through the ethics investigation cost her office $60,000 in legal fees -- almost double what the Boulder District Attorney's Office spent last summer to arrest and then clear John Mark Karr in the JonBenét Ramsey case.

The most troubling development of the Chambers era, though, isn't the Steiner embarrassment. It's her decision to start filing habitual-criminal charges in a vast array of cases. The shift in policy has caused consternation around the courthouse but received almost no scrutiny elsewhere. Given the long sentences her office is now seeking, and the way the policy seems to be affecting plea deals even in cases where the defendant avoids getting bitched, it may be her most lasting legacy.

Defense attorneys, including some former prosecutors, complain that the policy is being applied too broadly. It sends chronic but low-level offenders away on absurdly long and costly sentences, they say, at a time when the prison system is overloaded and rehab programs are grossly underfunded. In most cases, habitual counts are a slam-dunk to prove, but they tie up the courts in other ways.

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.

"They're trying to take away the discretion of the judges to treat a property crime like a property crime," says Tom Farrell, a former prosecutor in Adams County and Grand Junction. "When you give someone an offer that encompasses the rest of their life, you're challenging them to a trial. No defense attorney can say, 'Oh, good, we'll accept that.' A non-winnable trial goes on for a week, and it takes two prosecutors, at least one court-appointed defense counsel, if not two, plus a judge, a jury, sheriff's officers -- it's an incredible showtime waste of prosecutorial resources."

O'Connor, the district's chief public defender, points out that the long-term costs are much greater. "Seeking these kinds of sentences on drug users and walkaways is a gross, irresponsible use of resources," he says. "It costs $26,280 a year to keep someone in prison. Do we want to spend over a million dollars to keep someone like that in prison for 48 years? Even with the offers they're making, do we want to spend a quarter of a million dollars on someone who walked away from a halfway house? He's worth more than educating half a dozen young people? The economic aspect of this is something that needs to be talked about."

Chambers says the policy is putting resources where they can do the most good, taking repeat offenders off the streets and sending a strong message to others in similar situations.

"If I do this for two years and see no result, maybe I'll say this isn't a good approach," she says. "But when you're talking people with seven, eight, nine felonies -- we should question whether it's appropriate to plea-bargain with those people at all. I want to see as many of these cases go to trial as we can take."

Many prosecutors find their calling right out of law school. Not Carol Chambers -- but then, little of her career path has been typical. An Ohio native, she traces her empathy for victims back to her work as a nurse in the emergency room of Denver General in the early 1980s, where she encountered the devastating effects of violent crime up close. "The horrible things that happen to people, you would see on a daily basis," she recalls.

Although she enjoyed nursing, she also knew she wanted to do something else with her life. She worked at DGH for seven years while going to law school. She clerked at the Colorado Court of Appeals and went into private practice, mostly insurance and medical malpractice defense work, before deciding she wanted to learn more about litigating by becoming a prosecutor. "I didn't want to be handling multimillion-dollar cases and not know how to try them," she says.

In 1990, at the age of 34, she became a deputy DA in the 18th District. From the start, she was hooked. She took on a host of difficult assignments, including prosecuting child-abuse cases, and eventually headed the office's special-victims unit. Yet her decision to run for district attorney in 2004, when Jim Peters was term-limited out of the job, took many of her colleagues by surprise. Some considered her too reserved to have a shot at such a high-profile position.

The smart money around the water cooler was on her primary opponent, Eva Wilson, a veteran chief deputy who'd handled several death-penalty cases. But Chambers had been a prosecutor almost as long as Wilson, and she presented herself as a reformer who would make the office more efficient and give deputies more discretion over what cases to bring to trial. Under Peters, every deputy was required to take four cases to trial every year; Chambers thought the system produced too many weak prosecutions and contributed to the district's surprisingly dismal conviction rate: The prosecutors of the 18th were losing more than half their cases.

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