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.