District Attorney Martin Beeson launched a fiery defense of his seven years in office and attacked challenger Sherry Caloia as uninformed and soft on crime Tuesday, in a candidate forum sponsored by the Aspen Young Professionals Association and Aspen Democracy Initiative.
Beeson, a Republican first elected after the recall of Colleen Truden in 2005, seized on prior comments by Caloia, where she said she would confer with defense attorneys about cases. Beeson also took issue with her criticism that his overzealous prosecutions are clogging local criminal dockets.
“She’s going to make the deals sweeter for the defendants so that they plead out. ... [My job] is about pursuing truth and justice and not about pursuing defense attorneys so that you can give their clients sweet deals,” Beeson said.
Caloia countered, arguing that Beeson’s hard-charging rhetoric displays “a basic disrespect for our criminal justice system.”
The candidates addressed the crowd separately, in five minute statements, in the basement of the St. Regis Resort. The forum also featured candidates for Pitkin County Commissioner Steve Child and John Young, CU Regent candidates Glen Gallegos and Jessica Garrow, and surrogates speaking on behalf of candidates for state and U.S. House, and President.
Beeson criticized Caloia’s previous claims that he has prosecuted too aggressively and left the courtrooms in Garfield, Pitkin and Rio Blanco counties overcrowded. He said it is judges’ and court clerks’ job to manage court dockets, and that Caloia’s concern about taking less cases is dangerous.
“There are three things she’s saying in between the lines,” Beeson said. “She’s telling the law enforcement and police officers to stop arresting people that are committing crimes so that we can clear the docket.”
The other two things he claimed she was implying were that she would drop cases outright and offer friendly pleas to criminals.
Caloia said she wasn’t implying those things.
“This is not code for, ‘Let’s give the defense sweet deals.’ It doesn’t show my ignorance of how the system works,” she countered. “This is basic fairness and justice in our country.”
Caloia, a Democrat who has practiced civil law in Glenwood Springs for 30 years and prosecutes municipal cases for the towns of Carbondale and Basalt, raised previous comments by Beeson about fighting “bad guys” and putting them “where they belong.”
“The DA does not make the decision about who is the bad guy, that is up to the judge or the jury,” she said, later adding: “There are many ways to handle a criminal case, not just putting the bad guys where they belong.”
She noted that a district attorney is bound by due process, the disclosure of evidence to the defense, and presumption of innocence, which she said Beeson has disregarded in office.
“Independence is the key here,” she said. “Because sometimes you do have to tell the police, ‘I’m sorry, this just doesn’t cut it.’”
Earlier in her campaign, Caloia had argued that sanctions against Beeson’s office for not providing defense attorneys with pretrial evidence was indicative of a heedless style that marginalized rights of the accused. The Colorado Court of Appeals last month reversed the district court’s decision on those sanctions, vindicating Beeson, which he noted with relish.
“The Court of Appeals reversed the district court and confirmed my good judgment and common sense in regard to this case, and repudiated my opponent’s position,” he said.
Caloia closed her statement noting that Beeson butted heads with the Pitkin County commissioners during the recession, when he refused to lower his budget by the percentage that other county offices had. She characterized him as driven by “dogged righteousness and disdain for the system.”
While the DA race provided most of the fireworks Tuesday night, the county commissioner candidates did highlight their different positions on natural gas drilling on federal land in the Thompson Divide area.
Child said he recognized the legitimacy of existing gas leases there, and though he supports efforts to stop drilling there, he also supports natural gas as a transition fuel for America.
“I am a very strong environmentalist,” he said, “and I tend to want to produce lots of renewable energy and quit using fossil fuels, but natural gas is a tremendous transition fuel. ... I know that we very likely will have natural gas drilling there and we need to live with that.”
Young countered that the Thompson Divide is inappropriate for drilling and that the elected leaders and residents of Pitkin County should follow the lead of those in the North Fork Valley, who successfully fought off a lease auction there earlier this year. He suggested the county put a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing, write a strict local drilling code and drive gas companies out.
“We can push back as hard as we possibly can, see if we can’t be like the North Fork, and rise as one — 10,000 voices over there, to push it back out of their valley — that’s what I’m suggesting we do.”