District attorney candidate Sherry Caloia and incumbent Martin Beeson clashed Wednesday over issues ranging from Charlie Sheen and medical marijuana to the carbon-monoxide deaths of a Denver family outside Aspen.
The tension was palatable in the GrassRoots TV studio during “Squirm Night,” with Beeson staring hard at Caloia as she spoke, while the challenger barely looked at the district attorney.
Beeson, a Republican, said he has righted an office that was in chaos in 2005, when he took over for the recalled Colleen Truden, and asked if voters wanted another attorney as prosecutor whose experience is mostly in the civil, rather than criminal, side of the law.
“We’ve been down that road,” Beeson said, alluding again to Truden without mentioning her name.
Caloia, a Democratic defense attorney and the municipal prosecutor for the towns of Basalt and Carbondale, said she has plenty of experience in both civil and criminal law. She noted she has been an attorney for 30 years, including a stint as a deputy district attorney in Adams County.
Caloia criticized her opponent and his office for pursuing frivolous cases, including one in which a woman was charged in a domestic-violence case for pouring coffee on her husband’s car after an argument. She cited another case in which a man was jailed for a night for throwing crackers against a wall in another domestic dispute.
“I’m running because there are a lot of people unhappy with how the district attorney has been prosecuting cases, some of which should’ve never been filed in the first place,” Caloia said.
Beeson said both cases ended up being dismissed, that law enforcement has different standards than prosecutors and that he was unsure what Caloia’s “real beef” was.
He said his office prosecutes infractions of every crime that is in the state statutes.
Aspen editors Curtis Wackerle and Rick Carroll, from the Aspen Daily News and Aspen Times, respectively, moderated the “Squirm Night” forum.
Wackerle noted that Beeson is touting his office’s record of convictions in some cases that have resulted in long prison sentences and asked if that was truly a proper factor in deciding prosecutorial competence.
Beeson said the list of convictions is merely a display of “the worst of the worst” offenders and acknowledged that there are other ways to measure results.
“The way we gauge success is how are doing with these hardened criminals?” he said. “Are we setting them aside from society?”
Caloia said a list of eight or nine people sentenced for serious crimes doesn’t go a long way toward establishing a district attorney’s record in office.
“Many cases have been lost for various reasons,” she said.
Caloia brought up the carbon-monoxide deaths of the Lofgren family in 2008. Beeson’s office convened a grand jury — a rarity in the upper valley — which handed down an indictment charging three people, including city and county inspectors, with felonies and misdemeanors.
“After thousands and thousands of dollars spent by many sides, the case was thrown out,” Caloia said.
Carroll, noting that the case was dismissed because of faulty dates used in the grand jury’s indictment, asked Beeson if he had checked such details before the prosecution went ahead.
“I don’t throw my prosecutors under the bus,” Beeson said. “We didn’t agree with the court’s decision and still don’t.”
He said he decided not to appeal the ruling because his office’s prosecution had brought awareness to the issue of carbon-monoxide poisoning and that he wanted the “process of healing to begin” for the victims’ families, the defendants and the community.
“But did you look” at the details of the filings, Carroll asked.
“No I did not,” Beeson said. “We hire people with the expectation that they’ll do a good job.”
He iterated, though, that he disagreed with the decision by Chief Judge James Boyd of the 9th Judicial District, who denied Aspen prosecutor Arnold Mordkin’s attempt to amend the dates on the grand jury indictment.
Caloia attacked this point, saying the only thing that would warrant such a prosecution is a “truly willful” act of malfeasance on the inspectors’ behalf.
“The mistakes made in this case were inexcusable,” she said.
She followed up by saying that, if elected, she would not likely retain the prosecutors in the Aspen office — “I don’t believe the [deputy district attorneys] are well-placed.”
The debate then became particularly heated as Beeson retorted that Caloia represented the wife of Aspen deputy district attorney Richard Nedlin: “There is clearly some personal animosity,” he said. Elinor Dvir was tried on charges that she allegedly hired a hit man to kill Nedlin.
“She was planning a murder for hire ... to [kill] my county court deputy,” Beeson said.
“And she was found not guilty,” Caloia interrupted.
Wackerle asked why Sheen, who was charged with felony menacing and two related counts for a Christmas 2009 incident in which he allegedly threatened his then-wife Brooke Mueller with a knife, had received such scant punishment. The actor pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count and was sentenced to 30 days in a California drug and alcohol rehabilitation center, 36 hours of domestic violence therapy and three months of unsupervised probation.
Beeson said conduct by the Aspen police officers who responded to the home Sheen was renting would have been fodder for the defense team. One officer stood between Sheen and a bedroom door as he questioned the actor, which could have lent credence to a potential defense argument that Sheen was subject to an unconstitutional “custodial” interrogation that restrained his freedom. The other officer, meanwhile, was dismissed for exchanging preferential treatment with an Aspen journalist.
Both officers would have been “very susceptible to impeachment” on the witness stand, Beeson said.
Wackerle also asked the candidates about their stance on Amendment 64, a measure that asks voters if they want to regulate marijuana like alcohol in Colorado.
Beeson said he opposes the amendment and believes that marijuana prohibition is effective policy. Patients needing medical marijuana have access to it in pill form with Marinol, he said, adding that he believes weed to be a gateway drug that will cause problems for children and increase driving offenses.
Caloia said she was conflicted. A lot of taxpayer money has been devoted to enforce marijuana laws, including “fairly ridiculous” prosecutions for people caught with pipes or small amounts of the drug, she said.
Those funds would be much better spent on “real crimes” of murder, rape, burglary and other cases “where people are truly injured.”