Riot and Wrong
Boulder County Deputy District Attorney John Pickering was a professional drummer before he started prosecuting criminals, and he still has that nervous energy. His hands roam constantly across his desk, picking up objects as he talks. However, when the name Cortland Connell is brought up, his hands stop moving. He holds a flat metal binder clip suspended in one hand. After a short pause, Pickering uses the clip to skewer a piece of paper in front of him.
Out of the six people charged with felony assault during the May 1997 Boulder riots, Connell is the only one who took his case to trial instead of accepting a plea bargain. Connell beat the rap.
"I'm not in the revenge business," Pickering says, picking his words carefully while continuing to gouge the paper with the metal clip. "We had the least amount of corroborating evidence in his case. It was one officer's word against the defendant's. The jury was made up of educated, reasonable people, and they made a decision, and that's the end of it. I got the verdict and came back to my office to find fourteen new felony cases sitting on my chair, so there's not a whole lot of time to lick your wounds. I won't try to second-guess the jury."
But when you bring up the name Alex Boyce, it almost seems as if Pickering, a fourteen-year veteran in the DA's office, starts to second-guess himself. Boyce is the only one of the accused rioters who's still in jail.
So visible during the uprising on widely seen videotapes that his attorney, Tom Lamm, calls him the "poster boy of the riots," Boyce accepted a plea bargain that netted him two years in the Boulder County Jail, the stiffest sentence in any of the six felony cases. His attorney says he was lucky to get that.
"Saturday night during the riots, Alex was wearing a distinctive bowling shirt and a cowboy hat," says Lamm, the younger brother of former Colorado governor Dick Lamm. "He was prominently featured on videotape for thirty minutes on the front lines throwing rocks and bottles and egging on the troops. Alex was charged with six counts of assaulting a police officer, with each count carrying a mandatory five-year sentence. When a lawyer looks at that kind of evidence against his client, it makes you weak in the knees.
"I never got close to trying this case. I took two years, which is still a long time, but it beats the shit out of five years in prison. But I've got to give credit to Pickering. He could've held our feet to the fire and made me take one count out of the six for five years. But Pickering knew five years wouldn't do anybody any good. Not even the cops wanted to see Alex go to prison for five years."
Even though Pickering talks tough about Boyce's fate, his affection for the 21-year-old, who, he points out, had a 3.9 GPA during his last year at CU, breaks through. "Boyce had to be incarcerated somewhere," says Pickering. "The disposition that he ended up with didn't come easily. If he didn't take that settlement, we would have taken it to the judge and won, and I would have slept like a baby. This was a reasonable compromise. But I've got to tell you that this kid took his sentence like a man. He could've skipped town, but he owned up to what he did and is doing his time. It's still difficult for me to understand why this kid got involved in this mess."
On the nights of May 3 and 4 last year, thousands of kids rampaged on The Hill in Boulder, lighting fires and throwing rocks, bottles and even Molotov cocktails at police officers. Many rioters said they were protesting the Boulder cops' heavy-handed alcohol-enforcement tactics--including handing out tickets at frat parties by the hundreds--in the wake of CU's declaring itself a "dry" campus the year before.
The cops were totally unprepared for the nationally televised melee. Officers stood shoulder to shoulder at intersections on The Hill taking a beating as their superiors tried to come up with a plan to disperse the throng, which was still chucking bottles when dawn broke Sunday morning. The cops had to make two emergency flights to Wyoming to restock on tear gas and rubber bullets. And although police officials say that every cop working those two nights was hit at least once by flying debris, only a handful of rioters were arrested, and most were charged only with misdemeanor violations such as lighting a fire without a permit.
"We were woefully unprepared as far as training and equipment are concerned," says Commander Joe Pelle, who has spent eighteen years with the Boulder Police Department. "Every year we get thirty, forty couches set on fire and parties getting out of control. But last year it just sort of melted together in one spot, and the kids decided they weren't going to let us break it up. I'm used to dealing with people who are drunk and mouthing off, but this was different.
"Last year we had a couple thousand people saying 'fuck you' to the establishment for some unknown reason other than they wanted to have a good time. It was a real shove-it-up-your-ass attitude, and it affected morale up here more than anything I've seen. A lot of people should have been arrested, but we only got a small percentage."
Even Boyce's attorney is confounded by the students' actions last May. "They reminded me of the rioting I saw about Vietnam and Cambodia," says Lamm. "But those riots were about something. These kids got no sympathy from 90 percent of the population because they were rioting for their unalienable right to party on. There was no principle involved. Some of the kids may say that the Boulder cops' alcohol busts were overkill, but there's no way you can compare that to napalming peasant villages. There's a quantifiable difference."
Not only were Boulder officials confused as to why the kids turned so violent, but they were also concerned about how to dole out appropriate punishment to the students who were caught, the majority of whom had been law-abiding until the riots.
"We're dealing with kids who committed extraordinarily serious crimes against society," says Pickering. "But on the other hand, you take these kids out of that mob environment and they're future doctors or lawyers--guys you buy your stocks from. What I had to do in all these cases was punish these kids appropriately and harshly in the short term while not ruining their lives in the long run."
So while Pickering is still pissed about the one who got away, he's also concerned about how the one he did put away is going to cope with his jail time.
As a reporter leaves Pickering's office, the DA calls after him. "Hey," he says softly from the doorway of his office, "when you see Alex, tell him I said hello."
So far, the strangest thing about jail for Alex Boyce has been observing his fellow inmates' TV habits. "That's the thing that tripped me out the most," says Boyce. "Every afternoon the place hushes down for Blossom. Cops is a close second."
The blue-eyed 21-year-old is in his second month of a two-year stint, and he says his biggest hangup at the moment is whether or not to let an MTV camera crew interview him for a special about last year's riots. Naturally, Boyce is a little wary of television cameras these days.
"When I saw myself on video," he says, "it was like an 'I can't believe that's me' reaction. But there I was, throwing rocks and stuff. With all those pictures in the paper and on TV, people were coming up to my friends in disbelief saying, 'You know that guy?'"
The images that the public saw of Boyce during the riots--a guy wearing a ten-gallon cowboy hat, dancing among flames and tossing bottles--is a far cry from the composed young man now wearing Boulder County Jail whites about four inches long in the leg. He banters easily with his guards, who joke with him about how many girls come to visit him and how much mail he receives from his friends. But when asked about the riots, Boyce gets serious.
"The scariest day of my life was my sentencing date on February 10," he recalls. "Being in the courtroom, the reality of it, was so overwhelming. So surreal. Especially when the judge started talking about deterrence and how he had to set an example. When he said two years, the tears just started rolling down my face. That was rock bottom, and it's gotten steadily better."
Part of his positive attitude, he says, comes from the man who put him away.
"Throughout the nine months between the riot and the sentencing, Pickering was the enemy in my mind," says Boyce. "But I was able to meet face-to-face with him before I came here and let him know that I don't hold any grudge against him. I accept responsibility for what I did, and I understand that he had a job to do. His job was to prosecute my case, and he did it well. I think he's a good guy. I'll admit that it's a pretty strange way to talk about your prosecutor, but that's the way I feel. One thing he said to me before I came in here really stuck in my head. It was something to the effect that I could either sit in a corner and suck on my thumb or face up to what I did like a man. That pretty much summed it up. He said I owed it to myself to make the best out of this situation."
Boyce still seems a bit incredulous when he talks about the Saturday night that changed his life. Earlier that evening, he and some friends had driven into Denver to check out a Reverend Horton Heat concert ("That's why I was dressed like I was," he says sheepishly), and they were already pretty liquored up when they got back to Boulder to find a full-scale riot in progress.
"The closer you got, the crazier it got," he says. "It was just like this fanatic energy with all the fires burning. I've never seen or imagined anything like it. I was loaded and wasn't thinking about consequences. I was right down there at the intersection for an hour and a half, all right on video, chucking shit at the police line. Then it started to get light and people started leaving. I remember some businesses getting busted up, and I guess that's what really sobered me up. My parents own a small business in Vermont, and when I saw some people throw a rock through the window of the Deli Zone and some guy come running out with a handful of cookies, I realized that I didn't want anything to do with it anymore. It was a strange and emotionally charged experience, and not a particularly pleasant one at that."
On the police videotape, a dazed-looking Boyce can be seen trying to walk right past the police skirmish line that he had been hurling rocks at all night and quickly being arrested by Commander Joe Pelle.
"I couldn't quite figure out what he was doing," says Pelle. "I'd been behind the police line all night and had been watching him in that stupid cowboy hat throwing rocks. I wasn't going to let him just walk away. But when I grabbed him, he had nothing to say. Even when I asked him what the hell he was doing, he was just stoic."
Boyce explains that he was simply dazed by a whole night's worth of rioting. He was joined in lockdown by five other rioters whom police caught in the act. One was Connell. Three others, David Martinez, William Hodak and Chad Lawson, served six months in jail. Hodak and Lawson have been exiled from Boulder as part of their plea bargains. Damon Dickey, a former CU football player, walked away from his work-release program after serving three months of a nine-month jail sentence. Authorities have issued a warrant for his arrest.
Boyce is the only one of the Boulder rioters who's still in jail. Oddly, he seems to be thankful for his predicament. He spends most of his time in jail working in the kitchen or in his one-man cell penning college-application essays (he's been permanently expelled from CU, where he studied journalism and took "a lot of criminology classes"). But he says he still can't explain why he participated in the riot.
"I know it sounds ridiculous when I say that I wasn't trying to hurt anyone, but it's true," says Boyce. "You couldn't even see the cops out there. It was just a line of dumpsters with tear gas getting launched from behind them and bullhorn warnings. I never saw a cop face-to-face, and I guess that's one of the reasons I didn't take off earlier. It was almost impersonal."
Despite the fact that Pelle was one of the prime recipients of Boyce's barrage, he doesn't totally dismiss the youth's explanation. "I know when you have cops in gas masks and helmets, they're not looked at as individuals," says Pelle. "I guess to him and those other kids, we were inhuman and intimidating. And when you combine that with the mob mentality, people just get caught up in the moment. That feeling of anonymity can make people do stupid things. And none of us are interested in seeing someone put to death for stupidity. Boyce is paying a stiff price."
Boyce himself is well aware that it could've been stiffer.
"This has been the largest learning experience of my life," he says. "It's allowed me to grow up, get my priorities straight and realize that I did a lot of really stupid things when I was loaded. Don't get me wrong--I wish it hadn't happened, but it allowed me to focus. It all boils down to the fact that I fucked up, made a mistake, and I learned from it. This could've ruined my life, and I shudder thinking about what could have happened if somebody had died. I'm just blown away about how two hours resulted in such a drastic change in my life. It's definitely made me appreciate everything I've got.
"On Easter I got to go outside in the sun for the first time since I've been in here. I couldn't wipe the smile off my face, no matter how hard I tried."
It's not an accident that John Pickering ended up prosecuting the riot cases. He says he's good at handling big, messy situations that need a lot of organization. But at least one defense attorney suggests that the fact that Pickering grew up in Canada, where attacking a king's agent is tantamount to attacking the king, gives him a special interest in handling insurrections.
Pickering isn't especially fond of that explanation. "I have great respect for police officers," he says, "and I don't like the idea of that kind of assault on society. But I'm sensitive to someone saying that I'm injecting philosophy from another country into this one. I've been a naturalized citizen of the U.S. since I was fifteen. I'll agree that there are different social philosophies between the U.S. and Canada in regard to social order, but the riots were something I looked at and said, 'This ain't right, period.'"
Critics, however, say Pickering had no business banning the convicted rioters from Boulder. He says he took a lot of heat for that demand, which was a condition of several plea bargains he offered. Although it would be unconstitutional for a judge to exile a person from the city, Pickering says he had a little more leeway as a prosecutor.
"It seemed like a natural part of the process to me," says Pickering. "Not only are we dealing with people assaulting police officers, the guardians at the gate, but we're talking about people committing a crime against the community. These fellas accepted the hospitality and benefits of this community and then they slapped the community in the face. It's safe to say that they wore out their welcome here. So get outta Dodge and don't let the door hit you on the backside on your way out."
Another aspect of the prosecution that irked defense lawyers was that prospective jurors wouldn't have known that each count of aggravated assault on a police officer carried a mandatory sentence of five years. "The jury would have had no idea about the Draconian effect of the minimum sentence," says Tom Lamm. "The jury isn't supposed to consider the sentence, but that's a big deal if you're going to take a case to trial."
Pickering quickly dismisses the role that minimum sentencing played in the fact that only one rioter took his case to court. "The law allows for the judge to change his mind after ninety days, even on a mandatory sentence," says Pickering. "So it isn't as Draconian as you might think. But then again, there's always the risk that the judge could stick with it. The bottom line is that I wanted to do something other than send these kids to prison for the maximum.
"Still, these were tough dispositions. If you take them out of the context of a riot and put it in a one-on-one situation with a kid throwing a rock right at a cop's head, I'm not sure that going to prison isn't inappropriate."
Cortland Connell was the only one of the accused rioters who stood up to the prosecutors. He avoided jail because, in the end, it was his word against a cop's. As it turned out, much to Pickering's chagrin, Connell is a free man, back on the CU campus, and he walks with the springy step of a man who fought the law--and won.
"I left the bar on Friday night and was checking out the riot like everybody else," recalls Connell, as he sits in a Boulder sandwich shop checking out some coeds. "The cops were pretty confused, and there were a lot of them who really didn't want to be out there fighting students. I feel bad for both sides."
But as Connell watched the rioting get uglier, one of his friends wanted to get his car out of the alley behind Jones Drugstore--an alley that had turned into a gauntlet of rock-throwing and tear-gassing. While they were leaving the war zone, Connell says, he spat at a cop after the officer took a baton swing at him through the passenger-side window. A few moments later, when the car was forced to turn around, the cops dragged Connell out of the car, claiming that he'd thrown a rock at the officer.
"I thought I was going to get a beating," says Connell, "because they dragged me behind this brick wall. But they just ended up taking me down to the jailhouse and booking me. I was scared, definitely, but I knew that I didn't do anything, and I felt like justice was going to work out. I was shocked that this cop would lie, and I didn't think he'd commit himself to perjury on the stand. It was messed up."
The cop stuck to his story at the preliminary hearing, and despite his attorney's concern, Connell decided he wanted his day in court. "I think Cortland was a little naive," says his lead attorney, Phil Bienvenu, a former DA in Lamar who now works for CU student legal services. "But he believed in his case and was pretty adamant about going to trial. I was definitely nervous."
When asked whether he was as nervous as his attorney, the 25-year-old Connell smiles slyly and says no. "During the trial, my assistant attorney couldn't eat, he was so nervous," says Connell. "But I felt very confident. I ate fine and got my eight hours of sleep every night. I knew I was going to be vindicated."
One of the strongest defenses Connell had going for him was the condition of the car he was riding in at the time of the alleged assault on the police officer. Although he says Pickering tried to describe the car as an "urban assault vehicle," Connell says it was nothing of the sort. "The car is this dope Audi," says Connell. "My friend has put a lot of work into it and washes it every other day. Man, we can't even eat or drink in that thing, so for the cops to say that we were rolling around tossing rocks out of it is ridiculous."
Connell does appreciate the fact that, unlike the case of Alex Boyce, there wasn't a lot of evidence against him. "The evidence against the other guys arrested in the riots was pretty good, but I still think they could've got a better deal if they'd hung in there," says Connell. "I mean, what's the deal with all this 'banned from Boulder' stuff? I was outraged that they would try that. What kind of scare tactics are those? I've been living in Boulder for fifteen years, so there was no way I was going to take that.
"The stakes were high. A conviction could have ruined my life and turned me into a sociopath if they had locked me up with some of those guys in prison. Don't get me wrong--I was cognizant of what was going on. But at the same time, the fact that they were smearing my name, turning me into Public Enemy No. 1, was pissing me off."
During his two-and-a-half-day trial, Connell says, there were two decisive moments. The first occurred when he took the stand. "I was up there," he recalls, "and said something like 'Obviously, I hurt the officer's feelings enough for him to take the stand and lie.' When I said that, Pickering got very pissed off. But at that moment, I felt like I was in control and the jury was listening to me.
"The other moment was when my buddy Pete took the stand and told the court about how right after I spit out the window, he said, 'Oh, my God, Cortland just spit on a cop!' Pickering went ballistic on that one, because I think the jury could see what really went down."
The way Connell sees it, that was when the jurors started to realize that the battle-weary cop may have arrested him simply out of frustration--not because he had thrown a rock at him.
"Hey," says Connell, "that's the good thing about Boulder juries--they're smart."
Even when the jury deliberated for over two hours, Connell says, he felt confident. "I was just feeling so much love from all my friends and family," he says. "They really supported me, and I felt very positive."
Although the trial left Connell exhausted, in debt and behind schedule to graduate, he seems to have taken something intangible out of the experience that he has a hard time explaining.
"A lot of times people get really intimidated by the justice system," he muses. "It's different when you see it on TV and when you find yourself right in the middle of it. But the bottom line is that you've got to fight for truth and justice. It sounds silly, I know, but that's what life is all about. You can't back down when you're right. I was getting all this energy from the truth. I'm not super-religious or anything, but I found out that situations like this bring out your spirituality."
And with that, Connell turns his attention to more pressing matters. He's got MTV filming a party at his house this weekend. Plus, he had to pawn his guitar to pay his attorney's fees and is trying to get it out of hock.
"I guess the only bad thing to come out of this," he says, "is that I'm broke."
Visit www.westword.com to read related Westword stories.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Westword's biggest stories.
- Dear Mexican: Was Jimi Hendrix Part Mexican?
Mon., Aug. 31, 7:00pm
Thu., Sep. 3, 6:40pm
Thu., Sep. 3, 7:00pm
Thu., Sep. 3, 7:00pm
- History Colorado Announces Interim Leaders While Board Looks for New CEO
- Red Stop Sign Stamp for Pot Edibles Out, Red Diamond In — But Is It Better?