Trial by Ire
Every politician loves a parade, but Bill Ritter and Craig Silverman were marching to a different tune last month in Montbello.
Incumbent Denver DA Ritter and his challenger both showed up with throngs of supporters at the northside community's thirtieth-anniversary parade. It was a feel-good event that provided an unlikely setting for political street theater. But in the bloodletting battle for Denver district attorney, no place is off-limits--and no subject is out of bounds.
Just as the parade was getting started, Eileen Fitzsimmons, the wife of Denver prosecutor and Ritter lieutenant Gerald J. Rafferty, saw Silverman walk by. She couldn't pass up the chance to exact a little payback from the man who has turned her husband into a human punching bag over his handling of the grand jury that investigated Denver International Airport. And Fitzsimmons picked the one topic sure to hit home with Silverman: the three times Colorado's higher courts have accused him of prosecutorial misconduct for making innappropriate comments to juries.
As a crowd of parade-goers looked on, Fitzsimmons says, she turned and asked, "Are you Craig Silverman? He said, 'You know who I am,'" she recalls. "I said, 'Well, you can call me Mrs. Prosecutorial Misconduct.' Then he called me a shithead, and I said, 'You can call me Mrs. Prosecutorial Misconduct, because only my good friends call me shithead.'"
After taking her own place marching in the parade, Fitzsimmons says, she continued to shout to the crowd, "No prosecutorial misconduct! Vote for Bill Ritter!"
"I thought it was a really funny incident," adds Fitzsimmons. "I guess he didn't think it was funny."
In fact, Silverman, a man known for his volcanic temper, was livid. But he insists he responded with nothing more than a slow simmer--and both he and his campaign treasurer, Tonie Benetti, who was present, vehemently deny that he used profanity. "That's baloney," says Silverman. "I knew they were trying to provoke a reaction, and that was the last thing I was going to do. Maybe someone in the Montbello crowd called her that, but I didn't."
Wherever he goes these days, the 6-5, 200-pound-plus Silverman's reputation as a big man with a short fuse precedes him. But the mustachioed challenger sees the Montbello incident as an indictment of his mild-mannered opponent, a former friend with whom he crammed for the bar exam and drank beer after long days at the office. "I couldn't believe that Bill didn't put a stop to it," says Silverman, who worked for Ritter for thirteen years before quitting his job as a chief deputy DA last June to run against him. "[Fitzsimmons] was walking right next to him."
Ritter says he couldn't have put a stop to anything because he didn't hear Fitzsimmons say anything about prosecutorial misconduct in his presence. Fitzsimmons, though, is gleeful when recalling her encounter with Silverman, known for his aggressive style in and out of the courtroom. "I went to City University in New York," she asserts. "I went to school with 19,000 Craig Silvermans."
In Denver, however, there is most definitely only one Craig Silverman, and he has made the DA's race one of the most memorable in years. When Silverman chucked his status as a lifelong Democrat, declared himself an Independent and entered the contest, the run for DA quickly overshadowed such seemingly inconsequential questions as who will replace Pat Schroeder in Congress. Dubbed "one of the hottest local races in the West" by the Washington Times, the Denver DA's race has drawn national attention both for its sheer rancor and for its brutally frank discussion of core criminal-justice issues. And it could serve as a litmus test of whether liberal Denver remains at odds with the increasingly conservative mindset of the nation on issues such as the death penalty and the appropriate treatment for drug offenders.
Ritter and Silverman, both forty and both career prosecutors, are opposites who hope to attract. Ritter grew up poor on a farm east of Aurora, one of twelve children born to a mother who spent time on public relief and a carpenter father who left when Ritter was in the eighth grade. He had brothers who went through the Head Start program, and after graduating from Gateway High School in 1974, he put himself through the University of Colorado and Colorado State with the help of federal grants. A devout Catholic, he took three years off from his DA's job in 1987 to serve as a volunteer lay missionary in Mongu, Zambia.
"I have a political ideology in part informed by my background," says Ritter. A central tenet of that ideology is that a prosecutor should do more than just put people in jail; in Ritter's view, the job also involves the legal equivalent of preventative medicine--sending prosecutors into classrooms to talk to schoolchildren, attempting to reform juvenile offenders before locking them up, and giving drug offenders a chance to wipe their records clean by participating in court-sanctioned dryout efforts. As the DA told a debate audience last month at the Brown Palace Hotel, "It's not just about the adjective of being tougher."
But if Ritter became a prosecutor at least in part to do good works, Silverman has a much more unsparing view of the job. "I don't want to teach social studies," he says. "There's more than enough to do as a prosecutor." A publicity junkie who's tried cases on Court TV and gone behind the microphone to provide on-air commentary himself during the trials of William Kennedy Smith and O.J. Simpson, Silverman is also a hard-liner who advocates maximum punishment for criminals, cringes at Ritter's attempts to reform juvenile offenders with an arts-and-crafts program, and vows to eliminate the Ritter-backed Denver Drug Court if elected. He's still chafing over Governor Roy Romer's decision to appoint Ritter instead of him when former DA Norm Early resigned in 1993. And even Silverman's many enemies describe him as one of the most artful prosecutors ever to set foot in a Denver courtroom.
While Ritter's quiet ways make him an unlikely candidate for high office, Silverman has chased the limelight like a plant bending toward the sun. The son of a prominent Denver attorney who has contributed $10,000 to his campaign and a mother who brings her friends to lick envelopes at campaign headquarters, he grew up in a comfortable home in east Denver. He made all-city in basketball and golf at George Washington High School and went on to graduate with a perfect 4.0 grade-point average from private Colorado College, where he doubled as a basketball star and rabble-rousing sportswriter for the school paper. Silverman is still remembered there for the prep-league brouhaha he touched off by commenting on the hairy legs of the women's basketball team in a satirical column.
It wouldn't be the last time Silverman's flair for bombast--satirical and otherwise--would land him in the headlines.
Silverman and Ritter first crossed paths at the CU law school, where they studied together and were teammates in intramural sports. Hired on the same day in 1981 by then-Denver DA Dale Tooley, they roomed together during office retreats in Estes Park and went on to dance at each other's weddings. But their friendship was long ago shouted down in a fundamental split over the proper role of a prosecutor.
Ritter is a disciple of Tooley's, a man who held his prosecutors to a high moral code, telling them they had a responsibility not just to put people in prison but to dispassionately dispense justice. Silverman, by contrast, has long sought to level the playing field against defense attorneys, testing the limits of what the law will allow in an ongoing effort to put away criminals whose exploits inspire in him a personal sense of disgust.
Earlier this year Silverman resigned his chief deputy's post to run against his boss. And ever since then, he has kept Ritter on the defensive, branding him "timid" in what has become a campaign mantra and issuing voluminous position papers picking apart Ritter's handling of specific cases. He has blasted the incumbent's decision not to seek the death penalty in high-profile homicides, ridiculed Ritter's failure to return a single criminal indictment at DIA and, in a move that has enraged former co-workers in the DA's office, brought his opponent's religious beliefs into the campaign, last month branding Ritter a "born-again" whose status as a devout Catholic was interfering with his ability to adequately punish criminals.
Silverman, who is Jewish but says he hasn't been blessed with a strong religious faith, danced away from the "born-again" comment after a brief storm of media scrutiny last month. He exhibited similar soft-shoe talents over a campaign flier raising questions about Ritter's Catholicism that Silverman workers distributed in heavily gay Capitol Hill in August. The flier touted Silverman's prosecution of gay-bashing criminals and, in a peculiar footnote, described Ritter as a "fundamental Catholic" who had an interest in "converting people." Silverman now disavows the flier, which a still-angry Ritter describes as a thinly veiled effort to portray him as a homophobe with ties to the religious right. "It's just despicable that he would use that language," says Ritter. Says Silverman today, "I don't even want to discuss religion. It's not an issue for me."
But though seemingly born to the role of provocateur--his own father's first piece of advice when he announced for the race was "Keep your cool"--Silverman is a hard man for political sharpshooters to pin down. He's the de facto GOP candidate in a town where Democrats outnumber Republicans by two to one, but he has largely eschewed the support of the city's 17th Street business establishment, collecting money instead from friends in the Jewish community and suburban developers with ties to Jordan Perlmutter, the real estate mogul for whom his father serves as in-house counsel. He's been roundly excoriated by many of the city's prominent liberals, yet he is adamantly pro-choice while Ritter is pro-life, a situation that has prompted the Pro-Choice Colorado PAC--whose political director is the daughter-in-law of longtime Denver Democratic activists Bill and Shirley Schley--to endorse the Independent candidate. Silverman has won the backing of gay groups for his support of same-sex marriages and his prosecution of anti-gay predators; his Capitol Hill flier even referred to a man who taunted and pointed a gun at a drag queen as a "homophobic scumbag." And, like Ritter, Silverman backs gun control, in effect trumping Ritter on the issue when in 1993 he took on the National Rifle Association by forming the nonprofit group Parents United--No Children's Handguns (PUNCH).
About the only area where Silverman can fairly be called a conservative is on criminal-justice issues. He actively supports the death penalty in appropriate first-degree-murder cases, while Ritter has waffled on the issue. Silverman endorses filing "habitual criminal" charges--which tack on additional prison time for repeat felons--whenever humanly possible; Ritter believes prosecutors should use their professional judgment in deciding whether to threaten defendants with the so-called "big bitch" and "little bitch." And in a twist that has proved doubly frustrating for the Ritter campaign, the areas where Silverman seems most vulnerable--namely, what appeals courts have termed his "misplaced zeal" to win cases and what present and former colleagues describe as a sometimes disturbing personal aggressiveness--could prove an ironic plus in the eyes of voters.
The long history of Silverman's troubles with the state's appeals courts has become required reading for attorneys in the state public defender's office. That agency has attacked him in more than twenty appellate briefs filed with the Colorado Court of Appeals and the Colorado Supreme Court. Last year public defenders even asked the Colorado Supreme Court to punish Silverman for his long record of making inappropriate comments during closing arguments. In a highly unusual move, they asked the court to send a message to Silverman by overturning the conviction of a man he'd prosecuted for shooting another man on the 16th Street Mall. The court refused to cast doubt on Silverman's entire career, a move that effectively would have finished him as a prosecutor. But the justices did reverse the conviction of LaShawn Harris, finding that Silverman's metaphorical comparison of the defendant's "unchecked aggression" to Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait had improperly swayed the jury. "Our system of justice cannot tolerate verdicts based on bias and prejudice rather than on the relevant facts and applicable law," wrote the majority in its opinion.
By the time the Harris case arrived on its doorstep, the high court was already familiar with Silverman's courtroom dramatics. In the 1989 case of burglar James Keith Jones, the Colorado Court of Appeals accused Silverman of making so many "ill-advised and improper comments" that it found no need to assess the prejudicial effect of each isolated remark, among them the prosecutor's claim that Jones's own defense attorney didn't really believe he was innocent. In the 1990 case of drug offender Herbert Dorsey, the Court of Appeals found that Silverman had denied the defendant a fair trial by making "repeated improper and inflammatory comments" such as telling the jury he thought Dorsey had perjured himself on the witness stand and informing the panel that a police officer who testified against Dorsey "wasn't lying."
Silverman notes that Harris, Jones and Dorsey were convicted at their second trials. He points out that in each case, trial judges initially approved of his remarks--"It's not just me," he says--but were then overturned by the high courts. And he accuses the public defender's office of gunning for him ever since he obtained a death sentence against Denver torture killer Frank Rodriguez in 1986--a claim that is backed up by former state assistant attorney general Doug Friednash, now a Democratic state representative. "They clearly, in my view, targeted him," says Friednash of the defense attorneys.
However, several of Silverman's former colleagues at the DA's office say his pattern of pushing the envelope is troubling. Karen Steinhauser, who went to law school with Ritter and Silverman and now heads the DA's juvenile unit, says she'll refuse to work for Silverman if he's elected. "I don't know of any other prosecutor in this office who has been reversed for prosecutorial misconduct," Steinhauser says. "I think we all want to win our cases, but at what cost? If winning our case means getting reversed and putting the victims and their families through another trial some years down the road, to me that's losing."
Denver prosecutor Mitch Morrissey, the son of a former Democratic state representative and grandson of the U.S. Attorney in Denver under Franklin D. Roosevelt, is equally dubious of Silverman's methods. "We don't do this job the same way," says Morrissey. "The lines are set; I stay away from them, and he gets as close as he can and then leans. I've got a problem with that."
Morrissey says Silverman's competitive nature has led him to adopt a win-at-all-costs attitude toward trials--a dangerous habit, he says, for a prosecutor, who is obligated not just to win but to seek justice. He points out that, far from making his comments in the heat of passion, Silverman carefully scripts his closing arguments, even at times recording them and playing them back for optimum effect. "He's a man who knows the rules," says Morrissey, "and he intentionally gets close to them and flaunts them."
Former Denver prosecutor Dave Heckenbach, who worked with Ritter and Silverman for years, says he worries that Silverman is so aggressive he'll "abuse every bit of power he is given" if elected.
"Craig does fight hard," adds Heckenbach. "He hates to lose. And on his good days, he could make Machiavelli blush."
A willingness to be bloodied in the pursuit of criminal convictions, however, is not necessarily a bad thing for a man trying to get elected. And that is a fact of which Silverman is well aware. Far from ducking the prosecutorial-misconduct issue, he included a photo of LaShawn Harris in a full-page newspaper advertisement that featured a lineup of felons he'd put behind bars--and who wouldn't be attending his campaign kickoff because "it would be against their convictions." (In his haste to get the ad into print, Silverman also accidentally printed the picture of an innocent man, to whom he has since paid a cash settlement.) The chief threat to the Ritter campaign, which enters the race as the odds-on favorite, is that voters will be attracted, not repelled, by Silverman's pit bull approach.
"I think that's one of the major things that attracts me to a DA like Silverman," says Steve Curtis. "All a victim ever wants is the most aggressive prosecutor possible."
Curtis speaks from personal experience. He was shot in the head in his Bonnie Brae home in 1989 by Kevin Fears, who killed Curtis's two roommates during the same attack. The murder plot was particularly odious because it was hatched by a prison inmate, Roger Young, who wanted to silence Curtis's roommate Frank Magnuson, scheduled to testify against him at an upcoming trial. Young sent his brother Joe and Fears to murder Magnuson; they wound up killing Daniel Smith as well and thought they had finished off Curtis, who played dead.
Curtis was angered by then-DA Early's decision to plea bargain with Joe and Roger Young and by what he perceived as the justice system's pronounced slant against victims. He became politically active following the trial and is now the Denver County chairman of the Republican Party--and an enthusiastic Silverman backer. "I really don't have a beef with Bill Ritter," says Curtis. But he says Silverman, with whom he served on the PUNCH board, has impressed him as someone willing to go to the mat for victims.
Silverman also has been endorsed by Christina Hollar, the Capitol Hill woman who was savagely beaten and witnessed her husband's murder during a 1993 attack. Ritter's decision not to seek the death penalty for the two men convicted in the attack didn't sit well with Hollar, who showed up at a press conference to back his opponent. Silverman was initially battered in the press for "taking advantage" of Hollar's personal tragedy. But that criticism boomeranged when victim's-rights groups assailed Silverman's critics for suggesting that crime victims can't think for themselves.
Another well-known victim volunteering for Silverman is Venice Justice, who in 1979 endured a horrific crime at her home near Stapleton Airport. Justice and her daughter were attacked by a knife-wielding man, who raped them and then killed the daughter. Justice was stabbed herself, but she survived after escaping to a neighbor's house.
After the attack, Justice went to work as a volunteer with the city's victim-assistance program. Later she accepted a paying job with the district attorney's office and was present when Ritter and Silverman were sworn in as assistant DAs. Justice left the office last year after a dispute with one of Ritter's supervisors. Today she has a Silverman yard sign in her front lawn and has persuaded several of her neighbors along Pontiac Street to do the same. "What I appreciate most about Craig is, he wanted to make sure every criminal paid, and paid dearly, for the crime they committed," says Justice. "I understand when Craig goes into court and wants to get the most that he can get. Nine times out of ten, they're going to reduce it anyway, so you might as well ask for a hundred years."
During her time at the DA's office, Justice says, she was also struck by Ritter's and Silverman's radically divergent personalities. "Bill is a people person," she says. "He smiles, he's always got something nice to say. Craig, I guess you'd say, is the exact opposite." According to Justice, Silverman's aloof nature and distaste for chitchat rubbed many of his co-workers the wrong way. "Some of the people at the office thought Craig was a snob, and he's not," she insists.
"Snob," however, is among the nicer names Silverman has been called inside the DA's building on West Colfax, where he once proudly displayed on his office wall a mangled tennis racket smashed by an irate opponent. "The most people Craig Silverman ever supervised in this office was five people, and usually two or three people were so mad at him they could hardly stand to work with him," recalls Morrissey.
The Denver DA's office essentially operates as one of the largest law firms in Colorado, with an office staff of 150 people, sixty of whom are lawyers. Its prosecutors try cases in district court, county court and juvenile court that run the gamut of all the criminal behavior the state's largest city has to offer. Perhaps even more than a knowledge of the law, the job requires an ability to read people. Dale Tooley had it and was revered. Norm Early didn't--and paid for it the hard way when a running feud with a single disgruntled secretary made his last months in office a living hell.
If a popularity poll were taken of the current staff, Ritter would win in a landslide. Nearly all of the office's chief deputies are supporting their boss in his re-election bid, despite Silverman's attempt to lobby the crew with an August 14 fundraising letter that doubled as a reassurance that, "contrary to circulated reports, I do not intend any complete housecleaning when I am elected."
Ritter has made personal relationships with staffers a priority during his tenure; at a "luncheon on spirituality" last March at the Holy Ghost Catholic Church, he even told an audience that forming meaningful relationships with fellow workers is as important as pursuing professional accomplishments. Silverman, however, thrived in an office where he traditionally had few defenders. It wasn't unusual for the single-minded prosecutor to reduce staffers to tears with his blunt criticisms and insensitive remarks, says Cooie Kenyon, who resigned her job as a victim's advocate last February after a run-in with Silverman. "He just loses it and starts screaming."
Indeed, an almost epic quality surrounds what Morrissey and others say was typically Silverman's less-than-finest hour: the annual office picnic and flag football game. It was then, they say, that his combative personality was put on full display. "In my memory, Silverman was the only individual to receive consecutive unsportsmanlike-conduct penalties for actions directed toward his own teammates," recalls Heckenbach. "And this is in a friendly, family football game."
Morrissey remembers being in huddles with Silverman where the self-appointed field general spent so much time screaming at receivers who'd run the wrong patterns that the team ran out of time to call a play. It was primarily owing to Silverman's antics, he says, that the annual pigskin contest was discontinued. "He had a tendency to be bitten by a dog at almost every one of these picnics," adds Morrissey, who recalls an incident where a fuming Silverman lit out in hot pursuit of a secretary's dog after the animal nipped him on the leg. "Dogs tend to bite the man. Maybe all the yelling and everything makes them nervous."
The tales of his gridiron exploits--and similar stories concerning bully-boy behavior in the Denver Bar Association basketball league--are dismissed by Silverman as fabrications generated by the Ritter camp. "It's a consistent theme of their campaign to try to portray me as a hothead," he says. "I am competitive, but I never lose my composure." That claim is echoed by Jeffrey Springer, a former president of the Colorado criminal defense bar who says that in fifteen years of playing basketball against Silverman, he's never seen the man lose control or take a cheap shot. Assistant DA Elizabeth Silva, who worked three murder trials with Silverman, calls Cooie Kenyon a "very sensitive person" and says she never saw Silverman get abusive. However, offices and sports facilities aren't the only playing fields where Silverman stands accused of showing a mean streak.
For instance, in his campaign resume, Silverman cites the fact that his prosecution of Denver nightclub bouncers Todd and Vincent Ciccarelli for brutally beating a man at a local bar was beamed across the country on Court TV. He doesn't trumpet the fact that the judge in that case blasted Silverman and Todd Ciccarelli's defense attorney, Don Lozow, for "trying the case in the gutter from the opening bell" and engaging in "the worst mudslinging between counsel in the court's history."
A highly unusual post-trial motion filed by Vincent Ciccarelli's defense attorney detailed the scene inside the courtroom. "Both attorneys continually maligned one another verbally and made facial and body gestures toward one another in the jury's presence," wrote J. Terry Wiggins, a former assistant U.S. attorney. At one recess, Wiggins claimed, "the two attorneys squared off as if they were about to engage in mutual combat."
Silverman has denied any impropriety in the Ciccarelli case. And while he may have crossed swords with office dogs during DA football games, he enjoys the support of at least two canines. While Ritter's campaign brochure pictures the candidate with his wife, Jeannie, and their four children, Silverman's features a photo of him and wife Trish with their two "wonderful and talented eight-year-old dogs." It then goes on to give their names and provide brief biographical sketches. Eddie Freddie Teddie, a mutt, was adopted from the Denver Dumb Friends League. Moses, a miniature poodle, was found "abandoned in the reeds near Denver's Bible Park."
A principal challenge for Ritter has been competing with the sheer force of Silverman's personality. A quiet man who openly admits that the "political part of this for me is not a walk in the park," Ritter has been forced against his will into a contest turned by Silverman into a political carpet-bombing campaign. The incumbent admits to being frustrated by how much time he's spent picking up Silverman's shrapnel rather than pushing his own agenda, which includes a new "community prosecution" program and an effort to improve support services to rape victims. An exasperated tone creeps into Ritter's voice when he discusses Silverman's claim that his pro-life views can't help but color his performance as DA. "I think the only good answer to that charge is that it's absurd," says Ritter, who adds that he's hired 23 entry-level lawyers since taking office and suspects "there may not be a single pro-lifer among them."
But aside from thumping Silverman for the prosecutorial misconduct cases, Ritter has largely refused to go on the attack. For example, his campaign has stayed away from an incident that occurred last year when Silverman, on the way home from a late-night poker game at the home of Denver defense attorney Harvey Steinberg and driving a radio-dispatched city car, was injured in a traffic accident at the intersection of Evans and Monaco. The city car was totaled, and a police officer responding to the scene ticketed Silverman for running a red light. But after Silverman obtained affidavits from witnesses and the other driver failed to show up in court, he was cleared of wrongdoing.
Democratic insiders worry privately that Ritter simply d oesn't know how to respond to the Silverman blitzkrieg. Having been knocked back on its heels, they say, the Ritter campaign has never regained its balance. "Bill's never had a real campaign," says one Democratic elected official who asks not to be identified. "It looks more like amateur hour than the kind of race I'd expect."
Ritter has fired back at times, insisting he has increased the number of felony prosecutions by 25 percent and accusing Silverman of distorting his record. But when he has tried to fight on Silverman's terms, the strategy has often backfired.
After Silverman said during an August 30 debate that he had talked with DIA grand jurors who described the presentation of evidence by the DA's office as "laughable," Ritter took the bait. At a September 5 press conference, Ritter said his office had conducted an investigation to determine whether any of the grand jurors had in fact violated their vow of secrecy. In a "District Attorney's Report on Alleged Grand Juror Misconduct" submitted to the court, he reported that every member of the jury had denied speaking about the case with Silverman. Asked whether he was calling Silverman a liar, Ritter replied, "I'm saying I do not believe Craig Silverman had a conversation with those grand jurors."
Within 24 hours, however, Silverman produced a grand juror--albeit one who demanded to remain anonymous--for the press. The woman's status as a juror was verified by reporters, and her appearance, incognito, on the Peter Boyles radio show had a circus-like feel. For Ritter, it was the worst of both worlds--not only did the woman's claims reaggravate doubts about the DIA probe, but his report boldly reassuring the judge that no one had talked raised questions about his office's ability to conduct a simple investigation. Ritter has since declined to pursue the matter, saying he doesn't want to turn the juror into a "scapegoat."
Despite the old legal saw that any prosecutor worth his salt can get a grand jury to indict a ham sandwich, Ritter says he's not disappointed that prosecutors Gerald Rafferty and Phil Parrott found nothing illegal in a $4 billion smorgasbord of political pork. "I'm comfortable we did everything we could do at DIA," he says.
Ritter isn't used to being on the hot seat. Known as a golden boy during his days as a chief deputy under Early, he was reportedly the favorite of Early's right-hand man, Chuck Lepley, who allegedly groomed him for the top spot. Despite his teacher's-pet status, Ritter was well-liked by his colleagues, in large part because he tended to concentrate on his cases and avoid publicity. He drew sensitive assignments, trying an Aurora cop who shot his wife's divorce lawyer in open court and traveling to distant Baca County to take on rebellious local farmers who'd attacked the county sheriff. For that trial, Ritter picked a jury in a hunting trailer while members of the Posse Comitatus milled around outside. Unlike Silverman, who has prosecuted some of the city's most notorious criminals--from Capitol Hill rapist Quintin Wortham to death-row murderer Rodriguez--Ritter didn't summon reporters to discuss the results.
Veteran Denver prosecutors who haveve worked with both men have been stunned by the ferocity of Silverman's campaign, which they say constitutes an attack not just on Ritter, but on principles of operation that have been in effect within the office since the Tooley era. For instance, Silverman has torn into Ritter for telling prosecutors they're obligated to hand over to defense attorneys any information they uncover that may discredit a suspect's alibi. Silverman says prosecutors should hold on to that information and use it at trial to prove the person is lying. "In the process of taking the Bill Ritter high road, you're subjecting the victim to the low road," he argues. But Ritter, following an example set by both Tooley and Early, advises prosecutors to turn over such information before trial, citing the state's extremely liberal discovery rules as a guideline. "There's no excuse to be cute here," says Ritter. "We're not losing cases over here because people turned over too much information."
In what may prove to be the core issue of the campaign, Ritter also questions whether traditionally progressive Denver is ready for the take-no-prisoners approach advocated by Silverman. "Let's face it, this is Denver," says pollster Floyd Ciruli, who has monitored the DA's race. "It's a very liberal city." Apparently with that fact in mind, Ritter's campaign literature describes him as "one tough district attorney"--but takes pains to add that "he's not a hothead or a self-promoting grandstander."
Ritter backers convinced that their candidate's decency is self-evident seem shocked by what they describe as the Denver media's pro-Silverman bias--a bias they say is evidenced by the largely soft-edged criticism the challenger received for making Ritter's religion a campaign issue. But Silverman has made headway not just because he throws red meat to journalists but because the public finds Ritter genuinely susceptible on certain key issues.
First there's the death penalty, where Ritter has performed a flip-flop. When he was appointed by Romer, Ritter said he had personal reservations about the death penalty but would feel duty-bound to seek it in appropriate cases. Today he says he isn't opposed on personal grounds but is hesitant to ask for death because Denver juries have traditionally balked at pulling the trigger. Ritter's decision not to seek the death penalty for Michael Quezada, an L.A. gang member who came to Denver and mowed down three local men in a nightclub parking lot, drew blistering criticism from Scott Carbaugh, an attorney with the Los Angeles DA's office who told reporters he "couldn't believe" it. But Ritter has asked for death in the case of Jon Morris, a man charged in the vicious murder of a five-year-old girl--a move that's become yet another contentious campaign issue following Silverman's suggestion that it was prompted by election-year politics.
Ritter also has exposure on DIA, where skeptics will always believe he engineered a laissez-faire investigation to protect higher-ranking Democrats such as Federico Pena and Wellington Webb. His assertion that an astonishing 98 percent of the graduates from Drug Court now lead "drug-free lives" sounds a little bit too much like a claim for a miracle cure. And Ritter also faces questions on the calls he made in two hotly debated recent criminal cases: the shooting of Jeffrey Truax by Denver police and the getaway of prosecutor-turned-killer Duncan Cameron.
The 25-year-old Truax was shot to death in his car by two officers who were responding to reports of an altercation in a nightclub parking lot. Ritter ruled the officers had violated no law, even though they pumped 25 bullets into a car filled with unarmed men and crowd members described as ridiculous an officer's claim that he fired because he was afraid Truax might run over his partner.
Ritter also drew fire for failing to immediately lock up Cameron, who murdered his ex-wife and a good Samaritan who came to her aid in a downtown-Denver parking garage. Cameron, an attorney who had worked as a prosecutor in Denver, spun a web of lies to police, alleging, among other things, that he had gone to a movie by himself and slept in his mother's garage the night of the killings. But prosecutors were still waiting on blood tests to confirm the identity of the attacker and had eyewitness statements that veteran chief deputy Mike Little, who was assigned to the case, describes as "all over the map." After Ritter decided there wasn't sufficient probable cause to arrest Cameron, the former prosecutor blew town, heading for the Mexican border with $10,000 in cash, a passport and a loaded revolver in his rental car. His getaway attempt was foiled when a California highway patrolman pulled him over for having a loose license plate and Cameron--who still hadn't been named in a Colorado warrant--shot himself to death, apparently convinced he was considered a fugitive.
"The fact of the matter is, we did not have probable cause to arrest Duncan Cameron," insists Ritter. But Silverman--who has angered former colleague Little by suggesting the office dragged its heels--has had a field day with the case. He says prosecutors throw people in jail every day with far less probable cause than existed in the Cameron case. "If it had been a person of color, very soon after he said, 'I slept in my mother's garage,' he would have been asked to assume the position," says Silverman.
Ritter came into the race with a huge advantage: He's the Democratic candidate in a town where Republicans have been on the run since the McNichols era and, with the exception of a bartender who surprised even himself by winning a seat on the Denver Election Commission, elected Independents have been virtually non-existent. The question now is whether he'll consolidate that position or fritter it away. Ritter has lined up endorsements from Governor Romer, Norm Early and most of the Denver City Council, along with a $500 campaign contribution from the well-heeled Democratic law firm of Brownstein Hyatt Farber & Strickland. He enjoys wide support in the city's business and legal establishments, which view him as a source of civic stability and may yet come to his rescue with late infusions of campaign cash.
But a recent telephone poll conducted by Ciruli's firm showed Ritter leading Silverman by only 10 percentage points--42 percent to 32 percent. That leaves Silverman well within striking distance. And one thing Ritter's never been able to claim in this race is the momentum. In the Ciruli poll, for instance, Ritter was running fifteen points behind fellow Democrats Bill Clinton and Diana DeGette--a sign, Ciruli says, that he not only may have a problem with name recognition but that voters may be keeping their options open.
Though Denver is known as a city where negative campaigning can spell doom for a candidate--witness Mary DeGroot's recent attempt to get elected by applying her magnifying glass to the many warts of Wellington Webb--Silverman's hard-line approach hasn't hurt him in the pocketbook. In the last reporting period, he outraised Ritter by more than two to one, landing $1,000 contributions from cable-TV magnate Bill Daniels and railroad tycoon Philip Anschutz, as well as a string of even fatter checks from Cherry Hills Village addresses. Silverman enjoys the support of both millionaire Democrat Myron "Mickey" Miller, who has hosted President Bill Clinton during trips to Denver, and from oilman Bruce Benson, the city's Republican kingpin and former GOP gubernatorial candidate.
The power brokers behind Silverman have allowed him to hit the air with the campaign's first TV ads last week. True to form, they were attack ads, ripping Ritter for the DA's handling of George Danley, a convicted drug offender who, after "graduating" from the Denver Drug Court in a deal approved by Ritter, went on to stab to death a seventeen-year-old boy named Ernie Encinas, who allegedly vandalized Danley's home with a friend. Danley, who Silverman says was high on heroin the night of the stabbing, beat the rap by claiming that, even though the boys were armed with only a bottle and a stick, he chased them down the street and stabbed them because he feared the gang members planned to kill him. Silverman, who was on call the night of the killing and witnessed Danley's videotaped confession--which he says came only after Danley and his brother first conspired to lie about the evening's events--recommended that Danley be charged with second-degree murder. Ritter overruled him. The DA says the facts of the case are consistent with Danley's claim--belated as it was--that he acted in self-defense. He denies Silverman's suggestion that Danley's videotaped confession provides ample reason for a jury to convict. But he refuses to call for the release of the tape, which remains in the hands of the police detective who investigated the case. Says Silverman, in a typical burst of bravado, "If Bill Ritter releases that tape, I'm going to be Denver's next district attorney."
Whether Danley will indeed prove to be Ritter's Willie Horton--the murderer paroled by Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis and turned into a campaign poster boy by George Bush--will be left to Denver voters. But the strident ad, which includes the cartoon-like placement of a graduation mortarboard atop the shaggy Danley's mug shot, has set the tone for the rest of the campaign. A KOA radio debate held the day after the ad started running was Ritter's and Silverman's most bellicose moment yet, with the two trading barbs so heatedly that Silverman was prompted to comment it was a good thing both of them favor gun control.
The Danley ad is just the first in a series of final-stretch gambits planned by Silverman. Last week he held a press conference--dubbed "The October Surprise" by his campaign manager--to assert that the Drug Court routinely allows people convicted of drunk driving to hold on to their driver's licenses. "I'll tell you what's negative," Silverman says when asked whether his relentless style may backfire. "What's negative is Ernie Encinas being stabbed in the back for being associated with someone who broke a window."
The Ritter camp is hoping that Silverman's high-pressure approach will eventually wear thin with voters. But either way, the district attorney and his former chief deputy are stuck with each other until November 5. Silverman, it seems, simply doesn't have it in him to back down. And it's a trait he comes by honestly.
Three years ago, after Silverman failed to make the final cut in Romer's search for someone to replace the departing Early, his father, Sheldon Silverman, was incensed. The veteran real estate attorney could have suffered in silence, as did the parents of the other failed candidates. But keeping quiet isn't his style. Instead, the longtime Denver attorney filed into the audience when Romer showed up to speak at a local synagogue and, rising from his seat midway through the event, proceeded to make a scene. Raising his voice in anger, the elder Silverman accused the state's top political figure of favoritism. In effect, he suggested that his boy had been robbed. "I blew my top," he says now, adding that he later apologized to the governor.
Sheldon Silverman recalls advising his son to stay cool when he learned Craig planned to run for DA. The elder Silverman pauses before adding, "But you're not going to stop Craig. He'll do what he wants.
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.