The race for Boulder County District Attorney is taking place under the shadow of Alex Hunter, who has held the job for 28 years. For the past four of those years, Hunter and his previously off-the-radar office have come under glaring public scrutiny for the DA's handling of the murder of JonBenét Ramsey.
"That office is a national disgrace," says one former Boulder cop, who's now living in California but still hears all the jokes about justice, Boulder style.
Mary Keenan, the Democratic candidate for DA, has worked for Hunter for fifteen years and spent the last ten prosecuting sexual assaults. "She had been raised professionally by Alex Hunter," says her opponent, Dave Sanderson. "She was hired by him in 1985, and she's been trained by him ever since -- and in a very closed, narrow, single-focus atmosphere. She has practiced only in Boulder courts, only in front of Boulder judges, only with fellow Boulder district attorneys, only against Boulder criminal defense attorneys. She knows no other system. She knows no other way."
Many of the criticisms leveled against Hunter have involved his office's unwillingness or inability to prosecute crimes; the Ramsey murder is just the most visible in a long string of such cases ("He Aims to Plea," September 23, 1998). But in many quarters, Keenan herself is regarded as the exception to Hunter's deal-making rule. "I think she is the only clean one left there," says Sandy Long, who worked some early cases with Keenan and now runs the home-detention program at the Boulder County Jail for the sheriff's department. "She's not real tolerant of laziness, not preparing for a case, giving up a case."
Nonetheless, Keenan has the support of most of the attorneys in the office, several of whom have contributed to her campaign. One of Hunter's oldest and closest colleagues, Bill Wise, gave $800; Pete Hofstrom coughed up $400. (Another contributor, to the tune of $250, is defense attorney Craig Truman, currently representing a man whom Keenan will prosecute for sexual assault against several young girls.) Keenan is endorsed by former Boulder police chief Tom Koby, who resigned after a no-confidence vote by fellow officers; current police chief Mark Beckner; Adams County District Attorney Bob Grant, a member of Hunter's Ramsey team, and -- Ramsey-watchers will be interested to note -- Francesco Beuf, JonBenét's pediatrician and a staunch defender of her parents.
Keenan insists that she and Hunter are "as different as night and day." She says she intends to change the structure of the DA's office, making it less hierarchical and modifying the seniority system. No employee would be assured of his current job; each would be assigned roles according to his strengths and merits and the office's needs. But Keenan also defends Hunter. "You don't get re-elected seven times if you really are not doing anything right," she says. "Alex was at the forefront for many years of programs such as the victims' advocate program, collecting restitution for crime victims, creating and supporting the consumer division of the office, supporting the domestic-violence program. He reflected the values of the community. He was very strong on prevention and rehabilitation."
Keenan is no tougher than her boss when it comes to prosecuting sex offenders who've assaulted children, charges one critic. "She has a very clear record, and she continues to lie about it," says Alan Rosenfeld, a Boulder attorney who specializes in child-assault and child-custody cases around the country. "Mary Keenan gives deferred sentences or probation whenever a man pleads guilty to child sexual assault and has no prior convictions. She gives incredibly soft plea bargains to men who should be locked up for life. She wants people to believe that she has been aggressive in prosecuting child sexual-assault cases, but the facts prove the exact opposite."
Dissatisfied with the answers Keenan gave to his questions at a candidates' forum last spring, Rosenfeld says, he began talking to her Democratic opponent, Trip DeMuth, also a prosecutor in the DA's office at the time. Keenan remembers it differently: She says Rosenfeld had approached her earlier in the year, offered to work for her campaign and been rebuffed.
Together, DeMuth and Rosenfeld went through Keenan's case disposition sheets for the past five years, sorting out the child sexual-abuse cases. Out of 126 cases, according to Rosenfeld's analysis, eight were dismissed; nine were taken to trial, with four of those defendants being convicted and sent to prison; and the rest were plea bargains. Of the latter, fifteen perpetrators went to prison; 43 got probation; 47 got a deferred sentence, and four received what Rosenfeld describes as "light, non-prison sentences" such as home detention or a stay in a halfway house.
But those figures gave no real sense of how prosecutable a case might have been, whether the victims were willing or able to testify, or the exact nature of the assault. So Rosenfeld went to the courthouse and began pulling files at random; he says he discovered a pattern that validated his theory that sentences were very light and prison time seldom given on a first offense, no matter how egregious. These were some of the cases for which Keenan crafted plea bargains:
· Felipe Luna was arrested for raping his teenage daughter in 1995. She generally lived with an aunt in Denver, but occasionally visited Luna's Longmont home. At one point, she stayed there for a month. During that time, he sexually assaulted her four times. One night she blockaded her door with a dresser, but he pushed it aside and grabbed her as she attempted to jump out of the window. He threatened to kill her if she told anyone what had happened. On returning to Denver, the girl told her aunt of the assault; the aunt immediately called police.
Luna had already had five drinking-and-driving arrests and three arrests for assault, two of them involving domestic violence. He had never complied with court-ordered restrictions.
Luna pled guilty in Boulder County in November 1995. The following January, his girlfriend told police he'd threatened to kill anyone responsible for his being in jail. The sentence was imposed in March 1996: six years of intensive supervision. No prison time.
"Since the sexual abuse, I have felt sad, embarrassed, angry," Luna's daughter wrote to the judge, pleading for a more significant sentence. "Sometimes I feel like it is my fault. Last year I felt like I wanted to die and I tried to kill myself. I feel that when I grow up I am not going to be able to have a family because I am going to be afraid to have a relationship. ... I feel disgusted of myself. I would truly appreciate if you helped me. Thank you."
Within a month, Luna had violated his probation. He was then sent to prison for six years.
· In 1996, David Charles Wall had his children invite friends over for a slumber party, then coerced at least one of the children to drink alcohol. He threatened the group with a loaded gun and actually threw the gun at one of the boys. After Wall was arrested for this, one of the minor children told police that Wall had been sexually assaulting him for a period of six years. The boy used the word "torture" to describe these sessions and said he was very afraid of Wall.
Wall had been arrested in Boulder County in 1988 for sexual assault on a child and given two years' deferred prosecution. During those two years, he was around young children at his parents' daycare center. The 1996 charges netted him four years in prison.
· In December 1996, a Lafayette police officer received a telephone call from a mother in California. Her sons, between the ages of ten and thirteen, had been living with their father, Steven Lyle Craig, in Lafayette and had returned to her "not the same boys I left him with." In California, one of these boys told an aunt that he and other children had been sexually assaulted by Craig. Lafayette police had visited the house earlier because of concerns about child abuse, but the boys had denied any abuse.
Now they told a California cop that Craig had been abusing them since September 1994. He had dressed as a woman and raped them. He had made one of them pose naked on top of his naked wife, Nora, and had taken photographs. He sometimes did lines of cocaine in front of them, saying, "You might as well learn to do this now." They had denied all of this when Lafayette police first questioned them, because Craig had said that if he went to prison because of anything they said, he'd kill them when he got out. When asked about a bruised eye, one of the boys told the Lafayette cop that he'd fallen down the stairs. In fact, Craig -- who stood around 6'6" and weighed some 280 pounds -- had hit the boy with a pepper mill.
This was not Craig's first brush with the law. He'd been convicted of first-degree murder in Colorado Springs in 1969, after bludgeoning and stabbing Michael P. Humes to death. He received a life sentence and served twelve years of it.
A letter to the judge from one victim read: "He is a monster. He's been a violent person for years. He still brags about the murder he committed when he was nineteen years old. Spending twelve years in Cañon City, Colo. state prison didn't stop him from raping children, did it? He still brags on how he believes in killing snitches.
"His son is too terrified to even tell on him. The two boys from Calif. are too terrified to go to court and face him. With good reason too. [Name deleted] has been so severely beaten by his father that he will stay in denial until his father can no longer hurt him. My God, how can the court even consider setting him free?"
Craig pled guilty to a single count of sexual assault on a child by a person in a position of trust and received five years of prison time and five years' parole. He will be released next July.
· Russell O'Neil Craft raped his daughter or stepdaughter in 1999, and she became pregnant. She had an abortion, and police collected DNA samples from the fetus. According to Keenan, the samples were not tested.
Although the girl said Craft had raped her only once, he admitted to having had sex with her a "couple, two, three times," the first in August 1998. The sex was consensual, he claimed. Police recorded his confession on tape.
"I feel like he is always watching me," wrote the victim. "I can't walk down the street without feeling like something bad is going to happen."
Craft was sentenced to two years in Boulder County Jail with work release, and fifteen years of probation.
Outraged by the pattern he'd found, Rosenfeld wrote a guest editorial for Boulder's Daily Camera. "Thirty years after the epidemic of child sexual abuse first came to the attention of society, very little is known with certainty about the men who commit the crime," he wrote. "This much is known: They do it; they lie about it when caught; and they keep doing it until stopped by society...We can be sure that if we let Ms. Keenan continue to leave these men in our community 'on probation,' someone's child will pay the price."
Keenan responded with her own guest editorial: "My record speaks for itself. Since 1991, out of nearly 900 felony cases I have prosecuted, 253 cases involved sexual assault against children. Those prosecutions included 19 jury trials, with only one acquittal. Two cases were retried after hung juries -- resulting in conviction. More than 40 percent of the 253 cases resulted in prison or jail sentences as part of the original plea agreement. These 253 cases do not include cases involving adult victims or physical abuse cases. In deciding on a plea agreement, I consider: 1) the seriousness of the offense, 2) the criminal history of the offender, 3) the strength of the evidence, 4) the victim's wishes, and 5) whether the offender is amenable to treatment."
It is impossible to compare Keenan's and Rosenfeld's numbers, because Keenan's span almost ten years while Rosenfeld's cover five. Keenan also lumps prison and jail sentences together, although some men go to jail only for weekends or are allowed out on work release.
"For a layperson to look at a file and say 'This looks soft' is presumptuous," Keenan says. "A layperson hasn't met the victim, doesn't know the family dynamics, doesn't know the strength of the evidence and doesn't know what the judge will do. Because each judge differs on what they'll do if you do go to trial and win. Some give probation; some give prison. There are a number of factors that when you work in an area ten years, you know how to balance.
"You don't put victims into a court system in order to look tough to the community. You do the best job you can for the safety of the community and the personal well-being of the victim. I've done an average of four major trials a year. I'm not afraid to go to trial," she continues. "If it's not a penetration case, if it's a first time offense -- that is, a first conviction -- if the person admits and if a psychiatrist says they can be treated and monitored in the community, we will offer probation."
Keenan believes that treatment and careful monitoring are effective. "You can't lock up all the sex offenders in prison for the rest of their lives," she says. "You have to find a way to manage them responsibly."
Sandy Long agrees with Keenan. "Sex assaults on children are notoriously difficult to prosecute," she says. "You have to be so careful that you don't get a conviction and sacrifice the kids. In at least half my cases, parents won't let the child testify. To my knowledge, everyone that Mary's able to prosecute, she does. She's just an absolute bulldog."
"You've got to be kidding," responds a Denver lawyer after scanning a list of Keenan's cases and dispositions. "I'm a defense attorney, and I'd give these people more time."
But while Rosenfeld criticizes Keenan's record, there are those who question his. He plays a key role in the national underground movement that spirits away women -- with their children -- who have accused men of child molestation and have been ordered by courts to comply with custody or visitation arrangements they consider dangerous. In 1991, Rosenfeld's license to practice law was suspended for six months by the Supreme Court of Vermont on three counts.
"Essentially, in 1987 I gave accurate advice to a client that, in a specific circumstance, a particular judge would not punish her for denying visitation for one weekend following her daughter's disclosure of sexual abuse," Rosenfeld says. "The Vermont Supreme Court found that by giving her the accurate information, I was in violation of a rule prohibiting a lawyer from encouraging a client to disobey a court order. I think they were wrong, but so be it."
And Rosenfeld's criticisms aren't the only ones Keenan has had to field in this race. There are also pointed questions about a piece of DNA evidence -- a pubic hair -- in the trial of Johnny Lee, one of five men accused of gang-raping a twenty-year-old University of Colorado student over a year ago. Judge Murray Richtel threw out the evidence because Keenan had failed to provide crucial information to the defense in a timely manner. The Colorado Supreme Court has agreed to hear Keenan's appeal.
"Under the Colorado rules of evidence, the prosecution is obligated to disclose not only the results of the DNA, but the statistical database that the results rely on," says Denver attorney Lisa Wayne, who is representing another defendant in the rape. "The Hmong database is more unusual; it's not as known as the Caucasian database, and because of its novelty, you have to disclose it in a timely way so the defense can make an attack on it." Although she declines to speculate as to whether Keenan's delay in presenting evidence was deliberate or negligent, she adds, "On a major case, how could you forget?"
One group that won't be voting for Keenan includes the women who once served as Boulder County's Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners. The SANE program, which specialized in physical examinations and collecting forensic evidence, had started as part of the Niwot-based Child and Family Advocacy Center in 1997 and won national acclaim in the years that followed. But in October 1999, six of the seven SANE nurses resigned, along with the two doctors working with the program; all of them cited problems with Keenan. Keenan, however, said that one of the nurses had made significant mistakes in a particular case, putting the entire center in jeopardy ("The Final Exam," October 7, 1999).
Within a month of the debacle, both the center and the Boulder Rape Crisis Team were saying they hoped to reconstitute the SANE program by the beginning of this year under the management of the one nurse who had not resigned, Cory Hilser. Hilser had stayed on when her fellow nurses left, she says, because "I didn't want to give it up. It was very important to me."
Now she, too, is gone.
When she first took over the program, Hilser was anxious to establish contact with the DA's office. "It never happened," she says. "A number of times last fall, I asked for a meeting with Mary. [The refusal] wasn't overt -- just 'Let's do this another time.' I knew the program couldn't go if we didn't have their support. The nurses who were applying were asking questions."
When the SANE program is finally re-established - the date is now projected to be early in 2001 -- it will be based in either one or three hospital emergency rooms rather than having its own site. This will ensure medical supervision, though the comforting sense of home that the nurses were able to provide in the Niwot facility will be missing.
"It was just such a good program," says Hilser. "A therapist of one of the patients came to a meeting and said her patient told her the SANE exam was the most reassuring part of the whole experience."
Although Keenan defeated DeMuth in the primary, she does have opposition: Dave Sanderson, a Republican -- albeit an unlikely Republican -- running in highly Democratic Boulder County. Sanderson has practiced criminal defense and prosecuted civil-rights legislation in federal and state, as well as Boulder, courts. He has won significant victories for the disabled, including one on behalf of a man suffering from bipolar disorder who was being evicted from federally funded housing. He has donated his services to the poor through Legal Services, and he works for environmental causes, having represented activists protesting logging and protesters who chained themselves to the gate of Boulder's Syntex Chemicals, one of Colorado's major polluters.
Keenan points out that none of Sanderson's experience involves criminal prosecution, but Sanderson shrugs this off. "There is nothing more difficult in the law than to defend people accused of crimes," he says.
Sanderson has promised to clean house in the DA's office if elected. In letters and e-mails to supporters, he's detailed steps he would take to curb future riots on the Hill, and he's spoken out forcefully against the national war on drugs, which he says has eroded civil liberties in this country and caused "increasing use of warrantless searches, racial profiling, dilution of reasonable suspicion and probable cause, aggressive forfeiture laws, mandatory prison sentences, more drug testing and increasing military involvement."
Although he concurs with criticisms that the current DA's office is soft on crime, Sanderson's deepest concerns for the future of justice in Boulder revolve around civil liberties. "Alex Hunter is laissez-faire, hands off; he's the invisible DA. He's highly ineffectual," Sanderson says. "But Keenan has a zeal that I think is inappropriate. A DA should be even-tempered, even-keeled, dispassionate, professional. I think she's pushed the limits in some cases. I do not believe in convictions at any cost, and I think any person who has been a professional prosecutor for all of his or her professional life risks losing sight of the goal, which is to do justice.
"Keenan is a zealot. She's a one-trick pony: sexual assault. And even in that, her effectiveness has been significantly questioned."
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.
- Cannabis Time Capsule, 1908: Teddy Roosevelt Eating Hash in Africa?
- Reader: If Only Salaries In Denver Would Increase Like Housing Costs!
- An Eternal Question: Are Colorado Girls Really Better Than California Girls?