Rape prosecution story: Denver DA, 7News trade inaccuracy charges

Yesterday, we reported about 7News' story on the rate of sex-assault prosecutions under Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey, whose on-camera ripping of reporter Keli Rabon was included online; see our original coverage below.

Since then, the tensions between the DA's office and the station have only risen, with the former publishing a list of alleged inaccuracies and omissions from the report, and 7News rebutting each and including documentation to back up its claims.

As we've reported, Rabon's story contends that the Denver DA's office "declines to prosecute 36 percent of all felonies and 71 percent of all felony sex assaults that Denver police bring to prosecutors" -- numbers much higher than those chalked up by plenty of prosecutors in Colorado and beyond. But her efforts to schedule a formal interview with Morrissey on the topic failed.

Moreover, when Rabon and a camera operator caught up with the him in what he characterized as an ambush at his office, the DA explained that he'd turned down the interview request because "I don't believe you tell the truth." He specifically criticized her approach to editing, apparently in reference to a story from last year about local police departments neglecting to test hundreds of rape kits.

DA's office spokeswoman Lynn Kimbrough in a photo for our 2004 column about "Setting the Record Straight."
DA's office spokeswoman Lynn Kimbrough in a photo for our 2004 column about "Setting the Record Straight."
Photo by Mark Manger

The station shared the entire cilp unedited, as well as a sit-down with Morrissey recorded by a member of his own staff; the footage was acquired via an open-records request. See both videos below, along with the rape-prosecution story as aired and more.

After the publication of our story, the DA's office utilized a format called "Setting the Record Straight" (we first highlighted it in a 2004 Message column) to rebut the 7News story, a version of which also appeared in the Denver Post. The response begins like so: "A recent broadcast news story...about filing statistics at the Denver DA's Office includes misinformation and draws conclusions about statistics without meaningful analysis."

As examples, the DA's office presents several items that are said to have been excluded from the report:

• In Denver, District Attorney and DPD policy mandate that police detectives present all of their cases for review, this includes cases with no identified suspect, cases with no physical evidence and cases in which the victim does not want to go forward. Unlike other jurisdictions where detectives may screen out unfileable cases without contacting a DA, every victim in Denver has their case reviewed by a prosecutor. This significantly different approach will obviously affect the refusal rate.

• The Denver DA's Office has a specially selected, trained team of prosecutors who exclusively review and prosecute sexual assault cases. These deputy district attorneys are selected for this assignment because they are passionate about helping victims. Every case that is declined must be independently reviewed by another senior prosecutor to ensure nothing was overlooked.

• Since 1995, we have been part of the Sexual Assault Interagency Council, a collaborative group of police, prosecutors, hospital staff, therapists, service agencies and others, who hold each other accountable for following a sexual assault protocol. Interestingly, the chairperson of this group was also interviewed for the story in question, but her supportive remarks about how Denver's process works were not included in what aired.

• We review every case, individually, on its own merits. We do not measure success by a single statistic; we look to an interdisciplinary approach to evaluate effectiveness (see below for more).

Mitch Morrissey responding to Keli Rabon during what he termed an "ambush."
Mitch Morrissey responding to Keli Rabon during what he termed an "ambush."

Also highlighted are three examples of what the release terms "inaccurate reporting," with the last of them referencing a woman interviewed in the story whose case wasn't initially pursued. The bold lines below are references to the original report; the Roman ones are the replies:

The Denver District Attorney's office declines to prosecute 36 percent of all felonies and 71 percent of all felony sex assaults that Denver police bring to prosecutors, the CALL7 Investigators found.

The only Denver statistics available on sexual assault filings came from grant reports from 2010, 2011 and part of 2012 that involved exclusively the review of stranger and acquaintance assaults. The figure reported does not include "all felony sex assaults."

For five months, CALL7 Investigator Keli Rabon tried to talk to Morrissey about his refusal rates, but his office said he would not go on camera.

Channel 7 called 5 months ago to ask if the District Attorney would do an interview, and he declined because he had seen Ms. Rabon's work (and saw first-hand how she manipulated interviews). There was no "trying to talk". There was a request, Mr. Morrissey declined, and 5 months later Ms. Rabon ambushed him in the lobby of the Webb Building.

Michelle said she is upset that her case wasn't pursued. After CALL7 Investigators started asking questions, police reopened the investigation.

The case involving "Michelle" was reopened when the victim provided some additional information.

How did 7News respond to these allegations? In detail, and with a barely disguised tone of indignation.

Continue for more about the charges and counter-charges related to the 7News rape prosecution story, including videos and more.  

A graphic from 7News' story.
A graphic from 7News' story.

After the "Setting the Record Straight" item surfaced, 7News and the CALL7 investigative unit responded with one of its own, point by point. Regarding the revelation that cases aren't excluded from submission to the DA's office even if there's no physical evidence, etc., the station replies like so:

CALL7 Investigators took this information into account in the story and asked Denver police if they bring all cases to prosecutors. On 1/31/13, DPD PIO Sonny Jackson stated in an e-mail: "Regarding the Sex Assault cases, there are a number of reasons a case would not be presented to the DA for prosecution, including instances where the victim does not cooperate or where there is no sufficient information to identify a suspect."

We've included that e-mail below, as well as another series of communications intended to debunk the accusation that 7News asked to speak with Morrissey five months before the alleged ambush, with nothing in-between. Here's the 7News narrative on that topic:

Through numerous calls and e-mails during the last five months we have sought interviews from the DA. Requests began on January 8, 2013 and continued via phone calls and e-mails through April 26. We met with DA spokeswoman Lynn Kimbrough and Chief Deputy Lamar Sims in person Jan. 14, 2013, again asking for an interview with DA Morrissey and being told he would not do an interview. We even asked for DA Morrissey's calendar in February to find a public meeting where we could interview him.
Rabon interviews "Michelle," whose sexual assault case wasn't initially pursued.
Rabon interviews "Michelle," whose sexual assault case wasn't initially pursued.

The rebuttals conclude with a very different take on the DA's office contention that the aforementioned Michelle case was reopened "after CALL7 investigators started asking questions:"

Michelle's case was opened in April 2011, and she was informed in April 2012 by DPD that it had been closed because the DA refused to prosecute.

When CALL7 Investigators requested her case file March 25, 2013, DPD initially responded that they needed a release from the victim's attorney, which he provided. Later, DPD responded that her case had been reopened and refused to provide even a redacted version of the report.

Michelle contends that police were aware of her witness since the initial filing of her report.

Also, CALL7 Investigators make no reference to causality in the above statement (as authorities refused to discuss the case and why it was reopened), but we reported accurately that it was reopened after we started asking questions in the case.

At this point, there appears to be no common ground between the station and Morrissey's office over their assorted disputes. But the fact that the exchange is taking place publicly, rather than behind closed doors, is a positive development. More viewpoints are better, even (or perhaps especially) when they're diametrically opposed.

Look below to see a Denver Channel 8 broadcast about the filing process, featuring Morrissey and Chief Deputy District Attorney Lamar Sims; it was shared in the "Setting the Record Straight" release. That's followed by the e-mails provided by 7News and our previous coverage.

Interview Request E-Mails

Sonny Jackson E-Mail

Continue for our previous coverage of the sex-assault prosecution rates, including photos and videos.  

Original post, 9:57 a.m. May 15: Reporter Keli Rabon's 7News story about the rate at which Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey declines to prosecute sex assault cases would attract attention under any circumstances. But at least as interesting are several videos featuring Morrissey, including an uncut, nine-minutes-plus clip in which he rips Rabon and suggests that her use of editing is unfair. See it and much more below.

Why air such criticism? Jeff Harris, news director for 7News, explains.

"It's not something we normally do," admits Harris about the decision to offer the complete encounter between Rabon and Morrissey outside his office, which the DA deems an ambush. "But given the content of his responses, we felt it was appropriate to do so. And we also think that because he's an elected official, it was important for his constituency to see how he responded to what we believe, and others are telling us, is a very important issue."

In the video, Rabon and her camera operator race up to Morrissey and ask him questions about her story, which asserts that the Denver DA's office "declines to prosecute 36 percent of all felonies and 71 percent of all felony sex assaults that Denver police bring to prosecutors" -- rates much higher than those registered by many prosecutors locally and across the country.

Rather than respond to Rabon's queries, Morrissey says repeatedly, in a tone of exaggerated calm, that he would be happy to discuss the matter off camera -- and when we say "repeatedly," we really mean it.

Back in 2012, Representative Mike Coffman became a national laughingstock when he responded to 9News correspondent Kyle Clark's questions about birther comments directed at President Barack Obama by saying "I stand by my statement that I misspoke and I apologize" five times in a row. But Morrissey utters variations on the happy-to-talk-off-camera line much more frequently -- the count may actually reach into the dozens.

Amid these repetitions, however, he tells Rabon the reason he won't speak to her on-camera despite requests that she says go back five months is because he thinks she edits stories in a way that's unfair.

Morrissey specifically cites a November report about local police departments failing to test thousands of rape kits. Here's that story:

Continue for more about 7News and Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey, including multiple videos.   The rape-kit report may not have fit Morrissey's definition of fairness, but it certainly got the attention of lawmakers such as Republican Frank McNulty, who eventually sponsored House Bill 1020. According to the Colorado GOP website, the measure "requires the Department of Public Safety to adopt standards for when evidence collected after a sexual assault is submitted and when it must be analyzed and compared to DNA databases."

Here's a 7News piece about the bill after it unanimously passed the House Judiciary Committee:

The measure's legislative winning streak continued from there, with the bill ultimately winning approval from both chambers of the Colorado legislature. It went to the desk of Governor John Hickenlooper on May 8, the last day of the 2013 session, and he's expected to sign it.

Morrissey's comments about the rape-kit report are general, not specific, in his exchange with Rabon. But when it came to their subsequent meeting about the sex-assault prosecution story, he amended the off-camera requirement -- by having a staff member set up one on his behalf while prohibiting 7News from using its own. The station managed to work around this restriction, though. Afterward, when Morrissey again refused to do an on-camera interview with Rabon, the station obtained the DA's office footage via an open-records request and shared it as well. See the two-part exchange below.

Why was it so important for Rabon to speak with Morrissey on-camera?

"We're a video-driven medium," notes news director Harris. "Our interviews are on-camera. We'd had numerous conversations on the record and on background with folks from the office -- just not him. But because he's the decision-maker, and an elected official, we felt it was our duty to get a response from him.

"In the end, he chose never to sit down with our cameras," Harris continues. "But we found through open records a decent-enough medium to provide that perspective for our viewers."

As for Rabon, Harris stands behind her "100 percent. She's done excellent reporting on meaningful subject matter."

What about the DA's criticism of her work? In Harris's words, "Mitch Morrissey has never been interviewed by Keli Rabon and has no idea how she edits -- because he's never been a part of her stories."

Odds are good he won't be making an appearance anytime soon, either.

Continue for four videos related to Mitch Morrissey and sexual assault prosecution.   Here's the story 7News broadcast about the rate at which the Denver District Attorney's Office declines to prosecute sexual assault cases:

This is the uncut video of Rabon and Morrissey outside his office. Note that he says on more than one occasion that the station will never run the footage of him criticizing her.

And here's the video shot by Morrissey's staff of his conversation with Rabon. First, part one:

And part two:

More from our Politics archive: "Videos: Rachel Maddow makes Mike Coffman national laughingstock."

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