18th Judicial District Attorney offers cash for convictions

8:46 PM, Mar 23, 2011   |    comments
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Critics say it's unethical to give prosecutors a financial prize for winning a trial and may give defense attorneys a reason to appeal a case.

"The prosecutor's ethical obligation is to seek justice for everyone," Colorado State Public Defender Douglas Wilson said. "Basing bonus pay of conviction rates flies in the face of that obligation and sounds a lot like the Old West bounties."

In December, Chambers, who represents the Douglas, Arapahoe, Elbert and Lincoln Counties, told her deputy attorneys she was using 2010 statistics to determine bonuses.

"We plea bargain most of our cases so that we can try the others," Chambers wrote to her deputy attorneys. "If you are plea bargaining all of your cases and not even going on five [trials] (not homicides), you are not understanding the equation or reason we plea bargain to start with."

Chambers says she gave two deputies $3,000 each. The average bonus was $1,100. She did not report to 9Wants to Know the total amount given in bonuses.

"I gave bonuses to support staff and attorneys for morale and to recognize hard work, quality of work, positive influence and contribution to the prosecution team," Chambers said.

The 18th Judicial District is the only district in the state offering financial incentives to prosecutors for performance, according to multiple attorneys.

In the First and Second Judicial Districts (the first covers Jefferson and Gilpin Counties and the second covers Denver), district attorneys said they could not afford bonuses for their employees. Even if they could, both DAs say it's not a good way to evaluate performance.

"I look at the kind of cases that are being tried," Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey said. "Are my deputies trying hard cases and are they trying the right kind of cases like murders, sexual assaults on children - the hard to prove violent crimes?"

Morrissey says the Second Judicial District does not tie financial interest of any kind to a conviction rate.

"It's not fair to the prosecutors to do that. Because you can put in a lot of time, you can think about a case 24 hours a day and you can go to trial and a jury may find the guy not guilty. It doesn't mean you didn't work hard on the case and you didn't do your job and you didn't seek justice," Morrissey said.

The DAs for both of the metro area's biggest districts believe paying for performance could leave the prosecutor interested in the outcome of the case.

"Our job is not to directly tie the conviction rate, trials or plea bargains to a monetary figure," First Judicial District Attorney Scott Storey said. "That would be like working on commission or something. And that's not what we do."

The American Bar Association standards say a prosecutor's duty is to seek justice, not conviction.

"What matters is that you go in there and you seek justice. And you do the best job you can and then you leave it up to 12 citizens to make a decision," Morrissey said.

Two judicial districts in the past tried giving bonuses or awards to the felony prosecutor who tried the most cases, but both experiments were stopped after a year.

In El Paso County, where Storey was a district attorney in the 1980s, he remembers the prosecutor who won the pot of cash tried 21 cases in one year, compared to about 10 trials that other prosecutors did that year. He says the First Judicial District used to give out an award called the "Trial Eagle" to the deputy attorney in court the most often, but stopped doing that after they decided it wasn't appropriate.

"When you get competitive like that and when the mission becomes trials and how many trials you can get rather than to the pursuit of justice, then I just think that sends the wrong message to your prosecutors and to the community," Storey said.

Chambers says no DA is ever given a bonus for winning or losing any given trial. She says the five trials a year and 70 percent conviction rate is a performance standard by which to measure trial attorneys.

"The standard is set low enough that I can be sure that people are not cherry picking cases to get 'good' trial stats and leaving victims in challenging cases without justice, and high enough that I know they have certain skills, judgment and discretion. That is why I have picked those numbers," Chambers said.

Some attorneys believe she is leaving the door wide open to defense lawyers appealing lost cases because of case law history. The People vs. Perez decision defines a financial interest in a case as a statutorily authorized basis for disqualification.

"If the deputy DA received a bonus for winning a trial and knew that he/she would receive a bonus for wining a trial, that DA now has a financial interest that is 'outcome dependent.' If this were the case, then any defense attorney could request a special prosecutor for an 18th Judicial District case that went to trial. That, to say the least, would be a mess," Richard Bloch, criminal defense attorney and former chief deputy district attorney with the 18th Judicial District, said.

The 17th Judicial District Attorney, who represents Adams and Broomfield Counties, does not give bonuses.

"The number of trials and/or convictions are a mere part of a performance review, but not the focus," Krista Flannigan, spokesperson for the 17th Judicial District, said. "There is not a required quota as there are many variables in prosecution of cases. Generally, reviews consider an individual's strengths, areas needing improvement, review of goals from previous yeas and establishment of new goals for the upcoming year."

In the 18th Judicial District, the award money has left deputy attorneys arguing their case to Chambers and begging for bonuses.

"I do believe that I deserve a bonus despite my lower number of trials," attorney Cecilia Reyna wrote to Chambers in an e-mail on Dec. 8.

"I truly appreciate you giving me the chance to explain why I believe I deserve a bonus this year," Brittany Martin also e-mailed Chambers on Dec. 8.

"You did 13 [trials] right? That was the most in district court," Chambers wrote to Deputy Attorney Samuel Evig on Dec. 7.

Those attorneys all received bonuses, Chambers said.

According to county statistics, 90 to 97 percent of all cases statewide are plea bargained. The First Judicial District filed 3,800 felony cases last year. Denver says it files about 6,000 felony cases a year. The 18th Judicial District filed 3,093 felonies in 2010.

While 9Wants to Know did not find any other DA office giving performance bonuses, Chambers says her office is frugal with money and can afford it.

"If there is money remaining, we want to use some of it improve morale and retention," Chambers said.

Others question the bonuses when budgets are being slashed.

"I don't know of any other governmental entity that has funds to hand out bonuses today," Wilson said. "I find the bonus stuff ironic in this economy."

Chambers says this is the first year she has given the performance bonuses and, if the budget allows, she plans to do it again next year.

If you have any news tips or story ideas, please e-mail Investigative Reporter Deborah Sherman at Deborah.Sherman@9NEWS.com.

(KUSA-TV © 2011 Multimedia Holdings Corporation)

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