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?

Another factor in the low success rate, Chambers contended, had to do with the judges' conduct, which she planned to challenge.

"We had a domestic-violence perpetrator who was given a low bond, left to kill his significant other," she recalls. "We had a trial where the prosecutor objected, and the judge's response, loud enough for the jury to hear, was 'Bullshit!' Through demeanor, through rulings, judges were influencing the outcome of our cases. There's a lot of rulings I don't agree with, but when you have blatant problems with temperament, that's my business."

Battling breast cancer at the time, Chambers scarcely campaigned. She narrowly petitioned her way onto the ballot yet still managed to upset Wilson in the primary, then cruised to victory in the general election in the heavily Republican 18th. The triumph had a spiritual aspect to it, in Chambers's view. She has described herself as a "profoundly religious" person who prayed mightily during the campaign; she and her husband, Nathan Chambers, a minister's son and prominent attorney who once defended Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, are members of the Cherry Hills Community Church. At the time of her primary victory, she told a reporter, "I know I am watching God at work."

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.

Chambers had little time to savor her victory. Before taking office, she told the county commissioners that she wanted to be paid $147,000 a year, the same as Jim Peters. The commissioners decided that since she lacked Peters's experience in the post, she would receive $120,000 -- a 12 percent raise over her previous salary, but not enough to placate her. She pointed out that she would be the lowest-paid DA in the metro area, despite having the most populous district, and suggested that the commissioners take pay cuts of their own.

Sharp words for other officials soon followed. She'd barely taken office when the rape rampage of Brent Brents erupted into headlines. The DA's office, the Aurora Police Department and other agencies scrambled to explain why Brents wasn't already in custody on a child-molestation case that had occurred months earlier. The volleys Chambers fired over the botched police investigation generated hard feelings on the force -- and so did her long-running feud with Brian Saupe, an Aurora sergeant whose credibility she'd publicly questioned.

Chambers had unsuccessfully pursued perjury charges on Saupe as a deputy; now that she was district attorney, she notified defense attorneys of adverse information in his personnel file and even announced that her office would decline to prosecute cases in which Saupe was a witness. Fearing for his job, Saupe went to court to try to stop her campaign -- and lost. The battle alarmed other cops, some of whom still grumble that Chambers is making them toe lines they never had to toe before.

The district attorney admits that she's added to the police workload. "I wanted to emphasize better investigation before we file charges," she says. "I saw that people were being arrested who shouldn't be -- for example, in cases of identity theft. We have an ethical obligation not to prosecute people unless we have proof beyond a reasonable doubt."

Wiping out dubious police work was only part of Chambers's agenda. When Peters was DA, his office had maintained a cordial, if not exactly chummy, relationship with the district's public defenders. Shortly after Chambers took over, her office filed three grievances against attorneys on the other side. None of the cases apparently made it past the intake stage, but Chambers was soon on the warpath against another target, one that most prosecutors would never dare to criticize in public: the judiciary.

Calling the judges in her district "a very dysfunctional group," Chambers ordered her deputies to conduct a time-management study in the courtrooms. She wanted to break the logjam that left victims and witnesses waiting in hallways for hours. She wanted to know who the worst offenders were, which judges started late, declared lengthy breaks and otherwise bogged things down.

The study was ill-conceived and simplistic, critics say. In some cases, if judges are in chambers rather than on the bench, it's because they're dealing with search warrants or other matters brought to them by the DA's office. And many delays are caused by attorneys or absent witnesses, not judges.

"The dockets were just a mess," says John Portman, the district's chief public defender during the Peters years, who stepped down in 2005. "You'd go to court, and you'd continue stuff -- a lot of the time it was because the prosecution wasn't ready. There was a culture of continuance, and I don't think you can say it was the judges' fault."

Portman calls it "absolute garbage" to argue that the judges in the conservative 18th District were somehow prejudiced against prosecutors. "There was never a situation where the district attorneys were unfairly treated by the judges," he snaps. "They pretty much got what they wanted. In the rare instance that they didn't, they would attack the judges. The reason they were losing more than half their cases is that those cases weren't very good."

Several of the DA's own deputies had misgivings about the wisdom of clocking judges who would be ruling on their cases. "A few of us refused to do it," says Chris LeRoi. "I thought it was inappropriate for us to be doing that. We were informed that there would be retaliation internally, in terms of assignments and performance reviews."

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