Riot and Wrong

Page 4 of 6

"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.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Tony Perez-Giese