CU in Court
Eight years after she first reported a sexual assault to police and four years after prosecutors told her they were dropping the case, a young woman has won an unusual court ruling that orders prosecution of her alleged assailant, a former University of Colorado football player who was also implicated in the school's infamous recruiting-party scandal.
On Monday, December 15, after hearing an Aurora police detective testify that a veteran prosecutor had declined to pursue the case rather rather than "jump on the CU bandwagon" of rape allegations, Arapahoe County District Judge Carlos Samour granted the woman's petition to compel prosecution of Clyde Surrell, a former defensive end for the Buffs. The case is being removed from the office of Eighteenth Judicial District Attorney Carol Chambers and will be assigned to a special prosecutor.
"It's almost unheard of for a judge to intervene in the decision-making of a district attorney's office and take the case away from them," says Baine Kerr, the woman's attorney. "It's astounding that a case as strong as this one would have to face this kind of prosecutorial timidity. This is a great day for rape victims."
Although the alleged assault predates the CU scandal by eighteen months, its handling appears to have become entangled in the political fallout from that highly publicized case. If Surrell's prosecution does proceed, he will be the only one of several players named in a wave of rape allegations that started in 2002 to face sex-assault charges. But they won't be filed by Chambers, the controversial DA who has built her reputation on being tough on crime and a strong champion of victims' rights ("The Punisher," February 8, 2007). Chambers inherited the case from her predecessor, but the alleged victim says her complaint was mishandled for years.
"It felt good to have a judge look at the evidence and agree that this case deserves its day in court," says the 26-year-old woman, who asked to be identified only as Julie. Arapahoe County prosecutors "walked out of there with their heads down, and I was happy about that."
Paul Wolf, Arapahoe County's chief deputy DA for appeals, says that the victim's inability to recall details of the assault and initial reluctance to pursue the matter, conflicting stories from witnesses and other problems made the case unsuitable for prosecution — a position seconded by a Larimer County prosecutor who was asked to review the file last year. But Julie claims that the county failed to act on solid evidence even after Surrell's name surfaced in other CU rape allegations.
Her long-running ordeal dates back to June 2000, when she drank too much at an Eaglecrest High School graduation party. Surrell, a senior star quarterback, apparently drove her home. Julie says she has no recollection of what happened next. When she woke up hours later, she was sitting in her car in her driveway, wearing only a shirt, spattered with mud and in pain. She filed a report with Aurora police. They took samples with a rape kit and questioned Surrell, who initially denied having any sexual contact with her.
Months later, Surrell's DNA popped up in the rape-kit test results, indicating that he'd had vaginal and anal sex with Julie. By now busy playing football at CU, Surrell changed his story for detectives, saying that he'd had consensual intercourse with Julie. At that point, Julie says, prosecutors were prepared to move forward — but she wasn't ready.
"They came to me in February 2001 and asked if I would like to prosecute," she says. "But my dad was dying of leukemia, and I had tried to commit suicide after finding out the DNA results. I was quite unstable, and my mom wouldn't let me go through a trial. So I declined, knowing I could possibly do it at a later date."
Wolf maintains that the DA's office was never inclined to file charges in this case. But that's contradicted by a note in the case file from Aurora detective Ronald Hahn, who wrote in February 2001 that he'd received a call from Karen Pearson, now chief deputy district attorney for trials, "advising me that she felt that the case against Clyde Surrell was fileable." Hahn would later aver that, in his view, Surrell's shifting statements about his encounter with Julie, including a lengthy 2007 interview with 9News that was at odds with earlier versions, only made the case against him stronger over time, not weaker.
Julie's interest in pursuing the case changed dramatically when the CU scandal broke in early 2002, after three women claimed to have been raped at on off-campus party for players and potential recruits. Surrell was one of four players who later pleaded guilty to providing alcohol to minors at the party. He was also accused of being involved in a gang rape of a soccer player and forcing a student-trainer to have sex with a recruit, but he denied any sexual misconduct and was never charged. Julie, though, suspected the worst.
"I felt really bad about not prosecuting, because I thought I could have prevented some of these rapes," she says now.
In 2004, Julie flew back to Colorado from college in Arizona to tell Pearson that she was now ready to pursue the case. Hahn also attended the meeting, during which Pearson explained that her office considered the case closed. "We don't want to look like we're jumping on the CU bandwagon," she said.
Julie was stunned. "She only gave me ten minutes of her time," she recalls. "I pretty much felt stupid for even requesting the meeting; she made me feel like I had no case. That left me really confused because I was told I could prosecute in 2001. Why should I be punished for some scandal that's going on up at CU?"
The claims of rape at the university played out in a welter of investigations and exposés. Lawsuits brought by Lisa Simpson and other alleged victims were dismissed, reinstated, then settled for millions. Meanwhile, Julie continued to learn disturbing details about her own case, including the fact that an arrest warrant for Surrell had been prepared but never executed. Last year she found a lawyer and demanded that the case be transferred out of the Arapahoe County DA's office. Chambers agreed that a special prosecutor should be appointed, but then passed the case to Larimer County for informal review.
"Everyone was passing it around like a hot potato," says Kerr, who agreed to take on Julie's case pro bono after representing Simpson. "But if you look at the facts, they're very strong."
Judge Samour thought so. In ordering that the case proceed, he found that Arapahoe County's handling of the matter was "arbitrary, capricious, and without reasonable excuse" — a tough standard for judicial jump-starting of a stalled prosecution. But it's not the first time a high-profile case has been removed from Chambers's office; last April a Lincoln County judge disqualified her team from further work on a death-penalty case because of numerous instances of alleged misconduct ("Bad Execution," April 10).
Wolf says that Arapahoe County will await a written ruling before deciding whether to appeal. Julie acknowledges that her journey through the justice system is far from over but calls the granting of her petition "the beginning of the end" of eight years of upheaval.
"Clyde was supposed to be my friend," she says. "When he did that, not only did I lose all my friends at the time, but I lost my trust in everyone. That's hard to get back. I've been through therapy, but I can't get over it unless I have some closure.
"I want marriage and children some day, but right now I don't have relationships. I don't have a normal life. What has driven me this whole time is to gain my time in court. I'm a stubborn girl, and I will fight to get what I deserve and what's right."
After graduating from CU, Clyde Surrell played wide receiver for an arena football team, the Stockton Lightning, and coached briefly at Chaparral High School in Parker. He could not be reached for comment.
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