Say It Loud

Anne Sulton's ride looks like a gangsta Rolls-Royce: gleaming silver with flared fenders, spoked wheels and a long, snout-like hood. The car is a "Phantom," a radically modified Pontiac Firebird, and Sulton, the controversial civil-rights attorney who defended cop killer Gil Webb II last summer, doesn't look like she should be driving it.

With her mountain-woman getup--hiking boots, unzipped vest, T-shirt and beige pants--she would appear more at home in a Jeep Cherokee, or maybe an old Volvo.

Here, outside the northeast Denver office of the NAACP, there's no sign of the lawyer who angrily accused Denver police of a coverup in the case of Webb, the teenager whose stolen car collided with a police cruiser last spring, injuring training officer Victor Baca and causing the death of rookie officer Ron DeHerrera.

Sulton is a woman of contradictions: a civil-rights firebrand who was reared in a decidedly unmilitant household in a mostly white Wisconsin town; an attorney who entered law school because she wanted to make more money, not save the world; a woman who insists that she'd really rather be left alone but isn't shy about seizing the spotlight when it suits her.

Sulton takes pleasure in asking a visitor to guess which of the cars parked on the street in front of the NAACP office is hers, and she laughs at the startled reaction when it turns out to be the Phantom. But later, over a lunch of catfish and collard greens, she turns serious, talking about how the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development might begin a new program to provide money for inner-city business development.

This is what Sulton would like to talk about. Forget the Gil Webb case. Forget her. Let's talk about economic development--the heart of the civil-rights movement of the 1990s, she says. Or affirmative action. Or institutional racism. In short, The Issues. Ask her what her own purpose is, what's she's really fighting for, and she says it's about eradicating "legitimate anger" in the black community by eradicating the conditions that cause it.

And what about her own anger?
She shrugs.
"I ain't angry about nothing," she says. "I think I've grown out of that quirk."

Anne Sulton has never been afraid of a good fight. When other lawyers run for cover, she rushes into the fray. In the last twelve months alone, she's handled the Webb trial, filed defamation suits against an attorney and a television talk-show guest who had the audacity to criticize her handling of the Webb case, filed a sexual-harassment suit against Denver Bronco Tyrone Braxton on behalf of four women who claim he exposed himself to them at a Denver nightclub, and filed a discrimination suit on behalf of black Hertz employees at Denver International Airport.

But she's different from, say, Denver Yber-barrister Walter Gerash, who in the defense of controversial clients such as German artist Peter Schmitz has turned media manipulation into a form of self-expression. Sulton is equally adept at latching on to major cases; as for media manipulation, the jury is still out. In Madison, Wisconsin, where she used to practice, she was frequently on TV or in the headlines pushing her clients or her causes. But though she tried that with a vengeance in the Webb case--Sulton even got face time on Geraldo Rivera's cable show--her efforts to control the spin in Denver blew up in her face.

In going to bat for Webb last summer, Sulton at times seemed to take on the whole city. In her opening trial arguments, she claimed that Webb wasn't driving the stolen Ford Mustang and that Denver police had hidden evidence unfavorable to officers Baca and DeHerrera.

She did eventually establish that the cops got some of their facts wrong. Webb's car was traveling much slower than the 80 to 90 miles per hour tossed about early on. The police officers themselves were speeding (they actually collided with Webb, not the other way around). And Webb's prints weren't found in the car, though he didn't deny being in it. But faced with overwhelming evidence that Webb was the driver, Sulton lost the case. Webb was convicted of vehicular homicide, assault and motor-vehicle theft and is now serving a nine-year sentence at the Fremont Correctional Facility in Canon City.

In the meantime, Sulton's sweeping allegations about a racist conspiracy have earned her not only death threats and hate mail, but the wrath of lawyers, police officers and talk-show pundits across the city.

"What do you say about a woman who stands up in court during the Gil Webb trial, says there's a second driver, then never produces that person?" asks KHOW host Jay Marvin, who has made a habit of ripping Sulton on the air, though he's never invited her to appear on his show. "It's clear to anyone who reads the newspaper that this woman is a grandstander and an ambulance-chaser and doesn't have any credibility."

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T.R. Witcher