LONGMONT — Attorney General John Suthers on Wednesday defended fellow former prosecutor Bill Ritter’s record of plea-bargaining criminal cases while Ritter was Denver’s district attorney.
“For a big-city prosecutor,” said Republican Suthers, “I think Bill Ritter did a good job.”
Ritter, the Democratic candidate for governor, has been under GOP fire for plea-bargaining 97 percent of the felony cases the Denver District Attorney’s Office handled when Ritter held that office.
Suthers, who supports Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob Beauprez, said it’s fair to study Ritter’s tenure as a prosecutor, but “I don’t think it’s going to get much mileage” as an anti-Ritter campaign issue.
Suthers suggested Republicans should shift the focus of their criticisms.
“If I were Bob Beauprez, I would be harping at the fact” that Ritter “has only been a prosecutor” and doesn’t have the experience and track record in other areas that Colorado voters should expect.
Suthers, who served two terms as the district attorney for the Colorado Springs-based Fourth Judicial District, is running for election to the attorney general’s post he’s occupied since being appointed in January 2005.
During a Wednesday meeting with Daily Times-Call editorial board, Suthers was asked about plea-bargaining and Republican criticisms of Ritter’s crime-fighting record.
“I think I’m probably as aggressive a prosecutor as has ever come down the pike,” Suthers said.
But Suthers estimated that as a deputy district attorney and district attorney for El Paso and Teller counties, and as U.S. attorney, he’d probably plea-bargained between 90 percent and 95 percent of his cases.
Suthers indicated plea-bargaining is a fact of life for prosecutors and the justice system.
Under a best-case scenario, Suthers said, “if you occupied every open courtroom every moment of the day,” prosecutors would still only be able to take about 10 percent of cases to trial.
Moreover, there are “huge differences” between kinds of plea bargains, Suthers said. An examination of a prosecutor’s record should take into account such things as a judge’s sentencing record, the evidence in the case, the range of potential prison sentences and situations “when there’s public protection on the table.”
Suthers, who also served as a Colorado Department of Corrections chief in Gov. Bill Owens’ administration, cautioned against drawing statistical comparisons about plea-bargaining and prison sentencings from district attorney’s offices in cities like Denver and those of district attorneys from less-populated Colorado districts.
Denver’s homicide rate is five times that of Colorado Springs, Suthers said, so “you have a lot more people that need to go to prison.”
On the other hand, studies would probably show that because of the volumes of cases, district attorneys elsewhere in the state “are filing a lot of felonies that would be filed as misdemeanors in Denver,” Suthers said.
Recent attacks on Ritter’s record as a prosecutor have come from the Beauprez campaign, the state Republican Party and the Trailhead Group, a Colorado organization that targets Democratic candidates.
Suthers attributed many of the more negative ads, accusations and counterattacks in Colorado’s gubernatorial contest to “527” issue committees and other groups that operate independently of the candidates.
“I think, frankly, the governor’s campaign between the two candidates themselves is very civil because you’ve got two very decent human beings there,” Suthers said, adding that he’s long known both candidates.
Republican Suthers is vying with Democrat Fern O’Brien of Gunbarrel and Libertarian Dwight Harding of Longmont in this year’s election for the attorney general’s office.
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