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Norm Early, only Black DA elected in Colorado and Denver mayoral candidate, dies at 76

The former prosecutor described as "magnificent" trial lawyer, inspiration to African Americans.

DENVER — Norm Early – the only elected Black district attorney in Colorado history who lost the epic 1991 Denver mayor’s race to Wellington Webb – has died after a long illness.

Early, who served as Denver’s top prosecutor from 1983 to 1993, was 76.

The Denver District Attorney’s Office confirmed that Early succumbed to complications of diabetes and other medical issues.

"He was the most magnificent trial lawyer – seriously – that I ever witnessed," said Bill Ritter, who succeed him as Denver District Attorney and later served as governor of Colorado.

For former Denver City Council President Elbra Wedgeworth, his appointment as Denver DA in 1983, and his re-election the next year, was cause for pride.

"I was like, 'Oh my God, I can’t believe this. This is incredible,'" Wedgeworth said. "I just followed his career, and then I was able to get to know him personally and to see his work and I was just so impressed with the man he was, how he was someone of integrity and forward thinking.

"And I thought this is something as a community, as African Americans, we need to be and should be very proud of."

Credit: Denver Public Library, Rocky Mountain News Photograph Collection, George Kochaniec Jr.
Norm Early and the man he would face in the 1991 Denver mayor's race march in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1990.

She followed his work as DA closely.

"He was a trailblazer, a leader," Wedgeworth said. "I would look forward to, if there was a story in terms of him as the district attorney investigating it, to see his picture in either the Rocky Mountain News or the Denver Post, on scene, that made me so proud to see that," she said. "I’m like, this man is leaving the efforts for this investigation."

"That just made me so proud every time I would even see his photo, either on TV, or in the newspaper. It was very impactful for me and a lot of – everybody, really, from the Black community, I felt."

The 1991 Denver mayoral race featured a first – a runoff election between two Black men. Early was the presumed front-runner and led in early polling. Webb, then the city’s auditor, was considered the underdog – laced up a pair of sneakers, walked Denver, and pulled ahead in the final weeks before winning comfortably.

Credit: Donated to the Denver Public Library by the Rocky Mountain News
Norm Early, left, and the man who beat him in the race for mayor of Denver, Wellington Webb, during the campaign in June 1991.

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"It's never easy to lose," Early told his supporters as he conceded on election night. “Congratulations to Wellington Webb. He ran a masterful campaign."

Early then urged supporters to begin the healing process and get behind Webb as mayor, inviting them to go with him to Webb's election party. After arriving, and hugging Webb, Early stepped before the microphone and offered a gracious plea for unit.

"I am here to say that it is the responsibility of everyone to leave a hard-fought campaign -- to bury the hatchets – not in one another but in the ground," Early said.

Early grew up in Washington, D.C., according to a biography on American University’s website, where he attended Calvin Coolidge Senior High School.

At American University, Early ran on the track team and was the school’s first black student body president. After graduating from AU, Early earned his law degree at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, according to the biography.

He came to Denver, where he was admitted to the bar in 1970, worked at a legal aid service, and then joined the district attorney’s office in 1973.

Gov. Dick Lamm appointed Early Denver's district attorney in 1983 after the former top prosecutor, Dale Tooley, stepped down to run for mayor. Early was re-elected to the post in 1984, 1988 and 1992.

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He was known as a leading advocate for victim’s rights and was a past president of the National Organization for Victim Assistance, according to the Denver District Attorney’s Office. He was also a driving force in starting the National Black Prosecutors Association and the Sam Cary Bar Association.

“Norm was a giant in the Denver DA's office and whenever he was giving a closing argument, we all cleared our schedules to be able to watch,” Denver’s current district attorney, Beth McCann, said in a statement. 

“Norm was always passionate about victims of crime and made their well-being a cornerstone of his time as district attorney. He was also a personal friend of mine; a man I respected very much. I will miss him.”

Early stepped down as Denver’s DA in 1993 to go into private practice.

Ritter said the loss in the mayoral race stung Early.

"It’d be tough for anyone to lose a political race," Ritter said. "I don’t think Norm Early had ever lost anything in his life. He might have lost a DUI trial here or there, but he really was not a person who understood the pain of losing. And I think it was terribly difficult for Norm."

Wedgeworth worked on that campaign -- for Webb. 

"That’s just what made Norm so wonderful -- he made it so that, even though I’m sure it was very tough for him, that loss, that he was able to go beyond that loss and recognize Webb as the mayor of Denver and the leader of the community," she said. "And he was always very gracious and kind and thoughtful and funny even though I knew that was a very painful thing for him."

While serving as Denver's top prosecutor, Early saw sweeping changes -- the arrival of gangs, and crack cocaine, that deeply affected the Black community. 

"What I remember is how difficult all this was for Norm Early, an African American man," Ritter said. "And yet, he ran an office – he ran a law enforcement office and I thought he did it with great aplomb."

He was especially gifted in front of a jury.

Ritter recalled the day when he was set to give a closing argument in one of his early cases. Ritter's mother came to court to watch him. Then she heard Early was giving a closing argument in another courtroom, and -- aware of his gifted courtroom presence -- she decided to watch him, instead.

"People were heralding it as kind of a hallmark day that Norm Early is going to offer a closing argument," Ritter said. "And they were right about that. He was a genius in a courtroom."

Contact 9Wants to Know investigator Kevin Vaughan with tips about this or any story: kevin.vaughan@9news.com or 303-871-1862.