Commentary

Opinion: Denver DA Fails When It Comes to Treatment of Witnesses

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I wish I didn’t feel compelled to write this. But the older I get, the less tolerance I have for injustice. It is ironic that the one agency whose sole mission is justice is the one about which I am writing.

I was a key (or so I was told) witness in a high-profile murder trial that took place in Denver recently. The defendant was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. After my testimony, I was praised by the prosecutors, the family of the victim, and many of my friends who followed the trial for being very calm and collected on the stand and instrumental in the effort to convict him.

But, other than a quick text from the prosecutor after my testimony, the praise and appreciation from the Denver District Attorney’s Office ended abruptly once they had their conviction. After two days of intense testimony that definitely took a toll on me emotionally, I was left feeling used and, frankly, dumped.

I had been working with and speaking to Denver DA Beth McCann’s office for more than two years leading up to the trial. In the midst of these discussions, I moved to Italy. My move was motivated by a
few things, including the fact that half of America (the Trump half) seems to have lost its moral compass. It was also a way for me to feel much safer and far away from the accused murderer against whom I was planning to testify. He had been out on bail under house arrest for several years, and I knew at some point he would be made aware of the fact that I was on the witness list.

Being in Italy allowed me to remove one large stress factor from my life; sadly, though, many others took its place when I realized how difficult it was to live in a small Italian village not speaking the language. During this time, the deputy DA who was prosecuting the case was extremely empathetic to what I was going through and seemingly very concerned about not causing me more stress leading up to the trial. She was always available, pleasant, kind and supportive in all of our conversations. She assured me that her office would bring me back to the U.S. “at their expense” and make sure I was well-prepared for my testimony. My impression from these discussions was that they did this all the time and had a well-functioning system in place to manage witnesses being brought from out of town to testify. It turns out I was wrong.

Fast-forward to the weeks leading up to the trial. I was planning to be in the U.S. and away from my home in Italy for more than two months. I had not been back since I had left eight months prior, and I wanted to have time to visit family. This required a lot of pre-planning to find care for my pets and my home and to line up accommodations in the States. I wrote to the prosecutor and victim advocate many times trying to get information and dates for my flights. Responses were few and far between, and when they did come, they had little information. At one point, the prosecutor confessed to me that she personally was responsible for coordinating my flight arrangements and that she was in the middle of prosecuting another murder trial. Her responses became increasingly curt, and at one point she said, “I don’t have time for this.” I was floored that one of the top prosecutors in the city would be saddled with such an administrative task while also trying a murder case. At that point, it was clear to me that the DA’s office was either understaffed, mismanaged or both.

My flights did finally get booked, I made it to Denver, testified, and the defendant was convicted — which I realize was the main priority, and the prosecution got the job done. Their work in the courtroom was impressive, and I felt really good about the conviction and my small role in it.

But there was really no follow-up after the trial was over. The DA’s office never sent any per diem for expenses or reached out to me regarding how to apply for it. I attempted to contact the victim advocate over several weeks; when I finally reached her, the response was not satisfactory to me, either in its content or its tone. So I sent this email to Beth McCann:
I never got a response from McCann, even though the prosecutor said the email had been received and she would ensure that it was forwarded to Ms. McCann. When I told the prosecutor and the victim advocate that I never received a response from her, they only reiterated that the per diem of $20 per day was correct (and explained the reason for this in detail) and that they would send me a check. I responded that I lived in Italy and could not receive or cash a check.

Several days later, they did pay me the whopping $20 x three days for a total of $60 by Venmo, and emailed me a copy of their policy about witness travel and reimbursement. This was the first time I had ever seen that document or was provided with anything that clearly said what they would cover and not. The policy states that “reasonable baggage fees (one bag under 50 pounds per person)” will be reimbursed, but they do not pay for pet travel or pet care, and do not pay for rental cars and many other things that I had to pay for to come to Denver and testify. So even when someone travels from another continent, all our government will do is pay them $20 per day and put them up in a hotel for the number of days they are on the stand (providing no allowance whatsoever for rest to get over the jet lag). Despite being told that they would “bring me back to testify at their expense,” they really meant they would pay for a plane ticket (even if it cost three times the going market rate because their rigid policies provide no mechanism to reimburse witnesses who buy their own tickets) and then give me $20 per day, which didn't even cover parking in Denver, let alone any meals. My request for baggage reimbursement was denied.

While the details of the expense reimbursements seem rather mundane, they added insult to the injury already afflicted by the very major decisions involved in deciding to testify. Many witnesses never would have come forward in a murder case, because they wouldn’t want to get involved. Many more would not remain available to testify for years while the DA dragged their feet in bringing the case to trial and allowing a defendant charged with murder to make bail by failing to meet the burden of “proof evident presumption great.” And most would not travel from another continent of their own will to testify.

The fact that I did all these things and Beth McCann was either unable or unwilling to find the time to respond to an email expressing dissatisfaction with how her office is treating its witnesses is certainly disappointing. But the apparent lack of clear policy and procedure regarding out-of-town witnesses and the fact that her top prosecutors are being tasked with dual responsibility as travel assistants are more than disappointing; they're unjust. We as citizens should expect the most senior attorney in the city to show better leadership ability than she showed in this situation.

I will not be voting in the next elections in Denver, but I felt it important to make the citizens who are voting aware of how this DA runs, or fails to run, her office. If Denver wants to keep criminals off the streets and its communities safe, this office needs to have clear travel and reimbursement policies and procedures in place, and treat witnesses who do their part in that effort with a little respect, fairness, empathy and professionalism.

Susan McBride was raised in the Roaring Fork Valley and is now a dual citizen of the U.S. and Italy, where she has started a business assisting other Americans who have a desire to leave the U.S. behind and build a life in Italy. Contact her at [email protected]

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