Civility marks this hot-button race for DA

Special to The Colorado Statesman

The cataract of special interest money released by the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizen’s United, decision has subjected Americans to a staggering assault of negative advertising and character assassination. But candidates for District Attorney in the 18th Judicial District offered an island of civility in this river of vilification on Sept. 26 when they faced off at the South Metro Denver Chamber of Commerce.

The 18th Judicial District encompasses more than 900,000 people in Arapahoe, Douglas, Elbert and Lincoln counties. The race to replace term-limited D.A. Carol Chambers has attracted much attention because the winner will be in charge of prosecuting James Eagan Holmes, who is accused of killing 12 people and wounding 58 more at an Aurora movie theater. But the two candidates, Democrat Ethan Feldman and Republican George Brauchler, carefully avoided discussion about whether they might seek a death penalty in that high-profile case, knowing that such comments might be seized upon by defense attorneys arguing that political pressures had compromised Holmes’ rights.

Speaking in general terms, both candidates voiced support for the death penalty when circumstances warrant, and noted that they have had personal experience trying cases in which executions were sought, though not actually carried out.

“I will seek the death penalty in any case I think it is appropriate,” Feldman said. He noted he had handled a death penalty case as an attorney in private practice after leaving the Arapahoe County District Attorney’s staff and before being appointed as a County Judge by Gov. Roy Romer, a position to which he was re-elected five times.

Brauchler agreed, noting: “As a military prosecutor, I advocated for the pursuit of the death penalty in a homicide case to which I was assigned. I do not believe we are a safer community if we adopt a policy that regardless of the level of evil a criminal can perpetrate on the innocent among us, he or she can never forfeit their lives as punishment for their criminal conduct.”

In a discussion marked by mutual courtesy, genial humor and substantive advocacy — qualities sadly lacking in so many current political discussions — both candidates told approximately 40 business leaders that they would step up efforts to fight white collar crime.

Brauchler said the D.A.’s office needed to encourage the business com-munity to report and prosecute crimes, especially white-collar crimes. As an assistant district attorney for 11 years in Jefferson County, Brauchler said he had learned: “Sometimes the business community is reluctant to engage law enforcement in crimes committed a-gainst them because they fear that crimes such as embezzlement or other abuses of trust would call into question the relationship of confidence they have with their customers. We’ve also seen that a lot of crime today isn’t done by a gun, but by technology. The District Attorney’s office needs to train employ-ees to seek out more of these white collar crimes and prosecute them.”

Feldman, for his part, noted that both of his grandfathers and both of his wife’s grandfathers had been small businessmen and he had learned from them that solid law enforcement is very important to the business community.

“Business needs a safe atmosphere for its employees and its customers. Business will do better in a safe community. Businesses also want to be assured that if they are victimized, the D.A.’s office will take their problems seriously. There is currently an economic crimes unit in the D.A.’s office. It needs to be beefed up, with more attorneys and more expertise. There are many new challenges in the field of white-collar crime today. Criminals in the Ukraine could steal from a business in Littleton,” Feldman said.

Both candidates stressed their experience. Brauchler, a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army reserve, noted that in his 11 years as a deputy district attorney in Jefferson County he worked on such cases as the Columbine tragedy and the Kobe Bryant case. Additionally, he has worked as a Special Assistant U.S. Attorney, an Army prosecutor, and most recently, as the Chief of Military Justice for Fort Carson, and later, the 4th Infantry Division in Iraq.

“I was an early courtroom innovator, the first to use Power Point in a criminal trial in Jefferson County. I worked hard to excel at prosecution. I became a national trainer of prosecutors, regularly lecturing across the country for the National College of District Attorneys, the National District Attorneys Association, and state prosecution organizations from Colorado to South Carolina,” Brauchler said.

“My desire to improve courtroom advocacy and law enforcement led me to earn positions as an adjunct pro-fessor at both the CU School of Law and DU College of Law. I continue to teach the class I helped create, Litigation Technology. I am proud to continue to teach at the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Academy and Red Rocks Police Academy.”

Feldman said he was hired in 1974 as a deputy by the long-time Republican District Attorney Bob Gallagher. “He called me into his office and said: ‘These are the guidelines: Do the right thing. Now get to work.’ This simple principle has guided me throughout my career.”

While Feldman was assigned to the juvenile court, Gallagher designed a pioneering juvenile diversion program that would divert low-risk, minor offenders from court and instead counsel them and have them do appropriate community service.

“As the juvenile deputy district attorney, I was an active participant in the design of the diversion program and the hiring of the first director and staff members. I believe that the diversion program has been effective for decades now and I will continue it,” Feldman said.

“Bob Gallagher always emphasized the need to respect and listen to victims, even before there was a victim rights constitutional amendment. While I was working on felony cases, Mr. Gallagher became one of the first district attorneys to hire a victim/witness advocacy staff. Consequently, I had the privilege of working with victim advocates as we learned new ways to assist victims, experience that carried over to my treatment of victims while I was a judge.”

Feldman left the district attorney’s office for private practice in 1980. He was appointed an Arapahoe County Court judge in 1991 by Gov. Roy Romer and served in that position for almost 20 years until leaving the bench on Dec. 31, 2011 in order to run for district attorney.

Brauchler agreed with Feldman on the importance of juvenile diversion programs to keep youthful offenders from getting a graduate education in crime by sending them to prison.

“I think we have a very good diversion program. We need to get more career expertise in the juvenile system instead of viewing it as a way station on the route to other careers,” Brauchler said.

While Democrats now have a slight registration edge in Arapahoe County, heavy Republican pluralities in Douglas, Lincoln and Elbert counties still give the district as a whole a GOP tinge. But Democrats believe Feldman, who has been endorsed by Bob Gallagher across party lines, is running a strong race. In part, Democratic hopes stem from the raucous primary that Brauchler survived against Leslie Hansen, who was the chief assistant prosecutor to Carol Chambers for years. During that primary, Brauchler was sharply critical of high staff turnover on Chambers’ watch and her office’s poor success rate in felony trials. In one mailing, he criticized “a culture of corruption” in Chambers’ office.

“No other [district attorney’s] office in Colorado has hemorrhaged prosecutors like this one. I worked under a Democratic D.A. [Dave Thomas] in Jeffco, but we never let politics interfere with our job of doing justice. You can get more out of people by empowering them and telling them: ‘Your job is to do justice,’” Brauchler told the South Chamber audience.

Feldman also alluded to the high turnover of staff and attorneys under Chambers, saying, “Productivity can grow from disagreement as long as it is civil disagreement. I think that has been a problem in the current D.A.’s office. I want people committed to the idea that the purpose of the D.A.’s office is to do justice.”

Shortly before press time this week, Feldman received another important endorsement from a Republican.

Arapahoe County Sheriff Grayson Robinson announced that he has endorsed Feldman for district attorney. “I have known Ethan Feldman as a prosecutor, private attorney, Judge, and friend for most of his career. He has consistently earned the respect of this community and his colleagues,” Grayson said in a release. “I know that Ethan will serve with integrity, professionalism, and a dedication to justice when elected as our next district attorney. I am proud to support him.”

The high quality of the discussion at this forum met the expectations set by South Metro Chamber president John Brackney, who opened the debate by noting that as business people they were interested in solutions, not oratory. Board Chair Lisa D’Ambrosia, who moderated the event, also kept the discussion at a high level.

The lesson from this civil debate amid this bombastic campaign season seems simple: When voters insist on high standards, candidates can and will meet them.

You can read more about the candidates’ backgrounds and positions on issues by visiting their web sites: feldmanforda.com and georgeforda.com.

Bob Ewegen, retired Deputy Editorial Page Editor of The Denver Post, is a veteran of 49 years in journalism. A certified paralegal, he is now Director of Research and Communications at Ellis Wright and Ewegen in Denver. A version of this also appears on the Blackacre Journal blog published by that law office.