Longform

Blackburned

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"I was totally shocked when I heard he overturned this thing," says Larry Kelly, a retired Buena Vista restaurateur who had to make arrangements to stay in Denver during the two-week trial. "I think it's totally unfair. We're the ones who sat through it and made the decision. That's the due process of law. The judge is supposed to back us up, but he didn't."

Kelly and other jurors interviewed by Westword insist they weren't dazzled by Brennan's theatrics; if anything, his skirmishes with the judge came close to alienating the panel at times. They say they decided in favor of Cadorna not because of his attorney, but because of overwhelming evidence that the city had botched the investigation and firing of Cadorna. And they're astonished that Blackburn, who had a brief meeting with them after the verdict to thank them for their service, now has decided that their verdict doesn't count.

"At the time, it felt like he was satisfied that we did our jobs," says one juror who requested anonymity. "We did do our jobs. Then when I saw what he said about us, I was pissed. Not fair. Not true. If I could figure out a way to sue him for defamation of character, I would. What a horrible, horrible thing to say about us, that we didn't consider the evidence, that we didn't spend enough time on it. I'm sorry. This was clear-cut. We didn't need a lot of time. There wasn't anybody in the room who didn't see it clearly."


Mark Brennan's grandfather went to law school at Harvard but dropped out after his first year. His family still has a friendly letter from one of his professors there, Felix Frankfurter, who would later sit on the United States Supreme Court — and become the justice system's most influential advocate of judicial restraint.

Like his grandpa, Brennan was intensely ambivalent about a legal career from the outset. He grew up in northern Indiana, graduated from Rice University and eyed law school as a possible ticket to a career in the Foreign Service. He was accepted at every program to which he applied and decided on Stanford. He soon discovered that his deep, commanding voice and background in drama might come in handy in a trial setting, but the dispassionate nature of most legal maneuvering bored him to tears.

"There was nothing in the law that interested me in the least," he says, "but I'm one of those guys who finishes what he starts. I used to watch Rumpole of the Bailey, To Kill a Mockingbird, Anatomy of a Murder — that was the stuff that excited me. I knew that if I ever got the chance, I could kick ass in a courtroom."

By the time he got his law degree, the diplomatic corps was suffering Reagan-era cutbacks. Brennan moved into a basement apartment in his sister's house in Denver and took the Colorado bar exam. In 1984 he began working with a small labor law firm and, he says, "loved everything about it." But after four years, disagreements with a new partner in the firm prompted him to chuck the job and take a position in Kentucky as labor employment counsel for General Electric. That gig lasted another three years, until he had a falling-out with a senior attorney over a trucking contract. "It ended with me telling him to go fuck himself," Brennan recalls.

Brennan returned to Colorado in 1993 with his wife, Myna, and twin daughters. He was hired by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and was soon embroiled as lead counsel in a massive class-action age-discrimination case against Martin Marietta. But after "two very unpleasant years," he'd had a bellyful of office sniping and a lack of resources to battle the corporate giant. He left and found that he actually liked working out of a modest home office, spending time with his family and taking on a more manageable caseload.

Brennan first met Bill Cadorna in 1999, when the firefighter sought legal help in resolving some conflicts at work. A Vietnam veteran, Cadorna had joined the DFD in 1976 and had a nearly spotless record as a mucker on a pumper crew. But he'd recently supported an older firefighter's age-discrimination complaint and claimed to have suffered retaliation in return. Among other petty harassments, a captain had ordered Cadorna to perform a "set test" — a series of physical challenges that included raising a thirty-foot ladder by himself, dragging a 175-pound dummy 100 feet and running five flights of stairs while loaded down with equipment — for eight shifts in a row.

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast