District Attorney Martin Beeson said Wednesday that he stands by recent comments he made criticizing public defenders, as lawyers throughout Colorado condemned his statements.
Last week, after a meeting with the Pitkin County commissioners regarding his office’s 2011 budget, Beeson criticized the local defenders for some overzealous courtroom tactics and told the Aspen Daily News, “Public defenders are not defenders of the public. They are not serving the public good. They are taxpayer-funded attorneys for criminals.”
On Wednesday he said, “I stand by my statement. The so-called public defenders do not defend the public. The law enforcement defends the public. The prosecutors defend the public.”
He specifically referenced a Rifle police officer who was shot in the line of duty last week as an example of a public servant who defends the public. Public defenders, he said, “are government-funded defense attorneys and should be called just that, government-funded defense attorneys.”
His original comments came in response to a question about the state public defender’s funding, and appeared in an Oct. 22 article about the four-attorney Glenwood Springs public defender’s budget.
Since then, the comment has elicited some outraged responses from attorneys, including the head of the Colorado public defender’s office, the president of the Colorado Criminal Defense Bar and the Pitkin County attorney.
“The men and women that work for the [state public defender] work for the poor with little financial reward because they believe in the protections set forth in the Constitution by our founding fathers,” Colorado State Public Defender Douglas K. Wilson said via e-mail. “It is sad, and scary, that Mr. Beeson does not believe in the same principles.”
Beeson also had criticized local public defenders for excessively attempting to suppress incriminating evidence.
“It should be concerning to all, including other prosecutors, to hear a well-funded prosecutor indicate that providing effective representation to an accused makes his job too difficult,” Wilson said. “Our criminal justice system is based on the presumption of innocence and proof beyond a reasonable doubt. It appears Mr. Beeson does not believe in either. If that is the attitude of all elected district attorneys, then everyone’s liberty is at risk.”
Shawna Geiger, president of the Colorado Criminal Defense Bar, called on Beeson to publicly retract his statements and said the comments “show a shocking disregard for the United States and Colorado Constitutions,” which guarantee an adequate criminal defense for the indigent.
“As a lawyer who has been charged with the defense of our state and federal Constitutions, Mr. Beeson should know how valuable a service the Colorado State Public Defender provides to our community,” Geiger wrote in a letter to the editor (see page 8). “He should disavow his statements and apologize.”
Beeson said Wednesday he won’t be doing that.
“As far as an apology, they will be waiting a long time,” he said. “If they correct the abuses their attorneys engage in, I will say ‘thank you.’”
Private defense attorney Tom Silverman has called for Beeson to resign.
Silverman is a former Vail prosecutor, Silt judge and one-time president of the Colorado Municipal Judge’s Association, who currently runs a private practice out of Glenwood Springs.
“The statement attributed to him is spectacularly ignorant and reflects an attitude toward the criminal justice system unworthy of a first-year law student, let alone a district attorney,” Silverman said of Beeson. “The DA is sworn to uphold the Constitution, not attack it. Apologize or resign.”
Tina Fang, who runs the Glenwood public defender’s office, which covers the same three-county district Beeson’s office does, said his characterization of their work, “demonstrates why, now more than ever, the public defender’s office must heed its mission to ensure that indigent people accused of crimes in this valley are provided the highest and most zealous level of representation money can’t buy.”
Pitkin County Attorney John Ely expressed dismay at Beeson’s comments on public defenders, and disappointment in the DA declining to cut 5 percent of his 2011 budget, which the county had requested from all of its departments.
“I didn’t think anybody thought that way anymore,” he said Tuesday.
The liberal Denver-based crime and politics blog at www.talkleft.com on Friday deemed Beeson’s criticisms their “Worst Prosecutor Comment of the Week.”
Beeson said Wednesday that, “Most private defense attorneys in this district are men and women of integrity.” But he criticized some lawyers for meritlessly accusing him and his office of prosecutorial misconduct, attacking victims of crimes at trial, and frustrating the DA’s efforts with superfluous motions to suppress evidence.
“These stock motions are filed without a thought,” he said. “They have no merit and it’s their standard operating procedure.”
He specifically referenced two specific cases as displaying patterns of abuse by the Glenwood-based public defender’s office.
In the first, public defenders Fang and Steve McCrohan, Beeson said, cruelly portrayed the victim of a violent rape in Aspen as someone who may have traded sex for cocaine. He said one juror told his office he was led to believe the victim was a “coke whore.” After the jury came back hung earlier this year, the alleged assailant and his defenders accepted a deal in which he pleaded guilty to attempted sexual assault.
In the second, Fang and public defender Jim Conway rejected a plea offer Beeson made to a Rifle man accused of murdering his brother and then went through 15 months of pre-trial motions hearings, only to accept the guilty plea deal two days before the man’s trial was to begin last month.
Drawing out cases like those needlessly wastes untold amounts of taxpayer money through the cost of paying prosecutors, public defenders, judges, sheriff’s deputies and courthouse utilities, he said.
“Our charge is to pursue justice,” Beeson said. “They have just one goal in mind ... It is not in pursuit of justice or truth, it is in pursuit of a ‘W.’”
Asked if his complaints were with public defenders in general or with the aggressive techniques of Fang’s current team, Beeson said, “I’m not going to say if it is worse or better. I will say I had no problem with these behaviors from the government attorney’s office under [Fang’s predecessor] Greg Greer.
“This is more than just unprofessional in my belief,” he added.