District attorney answers her critics

District Attorney Carol Chambers has always been controversial — even before she took office as a first-term chief prosecutor in the 18th Judicial District….

By Peter Jones
Staff Writer
Posted 8/7/08

District Attorney Carol Chambers has always been controversial — even before she took office as a first-term chief prosecutor in the 18th Judicial …

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District attorney answers her critics

District Attorney Carol Chambers has always been controversial — even before she took office as a first-term chief prosecutor in the 18th Judicial District….

Posted

District Attorney Carol Chambers has always been controversial — even before she took office as a first-term chief prosecutor in the 18th Judicial District.

Her tough-as-nails image has rankled critics from the beginning, but Chambers’ supporters argue passionately that her successes as a prosecutor have made the district — which includes Arapahoe, Douglas, Elbert and Lincoln counties — a far safer community.

Attorney Frank Azar, best known for his local TV commercials, went so far as to bankroll a $60,000 campaign to promote Chambers’s reelection bid through a political-action committee called People for Victims Rights.

Last year, Chambers was hailed in many quarters when she became the first district attorney in the state to win a first-degree murder verdict in a road-rage case.

Supporters have also praised Chambers for her increased use of habitual-criminal statutes against repeat offenders, though critics say the prosecutor has been overzealous in effectively imposing life sentences on low-level or nonviolent offenders.

In a controversial move, Chambers has routinely billed the state Department of Corrections to prosecute murders that occurred in state prisons — even billing the state for the $131,000 salary of a chief deputy.

While the billing is legal, some have questioned the wisdom of seeking the notoriously expensive death penalty for inmate-on-inmate homicides and charging the taxpayers in a state that seldom executes anyone.

Chambers has been on the opposite side of the courtroom too. The Republican was the first district attorney in 16 years to receive public censure from the Colorado Supreme Court’s Attorney Regulation Counsel after she intervened in a civil collections case on behalf of a fellow GOP activist.

In less than four years, Chambers’ self-styled history has run the gamut — from bluntly challenging her own salary in a letter to county commissioners to being removed from a death-penalty case after a judge ruled her office had violated conduct rules.

The district attorney has also been accused — and cleared — of trying to intimidate a judge and an attorney and caused consternation when she conducted an informal survey on how Arapahoe County judges were spending court time.

In May, former Jefferson County prosecutor George Brauchler announced he would launch a dark-horse Republican primary challenge against Chambers, citing the incumbent’s arguably divisive history.

Brauchler’s candidacy was initially written off by party activists who backed the sitting district attorney at a party assembly, but the challenger has since received the endorsements of five law enforcement fraternal organizations and two police unions.

Chambers does not accept formal endorsements, citing a perceived conflict of interest.

In the face of controversy and political battles, Chambers has exuded self-assurance. But the prosecutor’s sense of humor can be just as disarming.

She comically mugs for the camera during a newspaper photo shoot. When asked to name her greatest weakness, she replies with a chuckle, “Men with tattoos.”

On the eve of the Aug. 12 primary that may decide the election in the GOP-dominated 18th District, Colorado Community Newspapers sat down with Chambers for a broad-ranging, one-on-one interview.

CCN: Was it a given that you would seek a second term?

Chambers: I don’t think I ever stopped and thought about it, but there’s more I want to do.

We’re in the process now of starting a mental-health court. It would be the first in the state of Colorado.

There are people in the criminal-justice system because of their mental illness. This takes those people out of jail, which is a very expensive — when their issues could be addressed by therapy, structured supervision and therapeutical medical intervention. It’s very cost-effective.

CCN: In your pre-law days, you were a nurse and interacted with mental-health patients and crime victims. How did that experience shape you as a prosecutor?

Chambers: It helped me see the acute anguish of being a victim or having your lover jump off the Blue Cross Blue Shield building. I think the experience showed me the human side. That tends to be the problem with prosecutors. We don’t interact with the human beings. We interact with their attorneys.

CCN: Since taking office in 2005, you have lost what your critics say is an unprecedented 50 percent of your original staff of attorneys. Why?

Chambers: It appears to be something it’s not. Once I won the primary, there was such vicious animosity in this office, those people had to leave. That’s to be expected whenever there’s an unpleasant, ugly election.

Then, amongst some very experienced attorneys, we’ve had a few people go, but that’s nothing extraordinary.

I tried to hire people who had some life experience so that when they were across the table from a defendant, they had some sense of what they were dealing with. A lot of those people were actually very liberal and had a hard time with being prosecutors, ultimately.

CCN: Are you saying liberals don’t make very good prosecutors?

Chambers: No, I’m saying some of them ended up being fairly uncomfortable with the process.

Then, we had some people with health issues. And we have fairly high standards and the load is extreme. It’s not a job for everybody.

CCN: Your reconstituted staff successfully prosecuted the state’s first and only first-degree murder conviction for road rage. Many people were surprised because road rage, almost by definition, is not a premeditated crime.

Chambers: This was so aggravated and so habitual for this particular defendant. He had performed the same maneuver on a police car. But also his attitude — he had killed two people, got out of his car and looked at the carnage and said, “Well, I feel sorry for that guy, but this guy deserved it.”

CCN: You have a reputation for being tough on crime — tough to a fault, according to some. How do you feel when you hear words like “firebrand” and “lightning-rod” prosecutor used to describe your style?

Chambers: I laugh. I understand that I have done some things that other prosecutors may not have done in the past. But I don’t know why. I have clearly stepped on some very powerful toes, but it was never my intent to cause them any kind of turmoil. It was my intent to make the system better.

CCN: Any regrets?

Chambers: My interactions [over my salary] with the county commissioners. They’re delightful people. At the time, I wanted to make sure that our relationship was not going to be hampered by political bad feelings. At this point, I have a great working relationship with them.

CCN: You have clashed with others too. Your GOP challenger has said you are more centered on controversy than on building strong relationships in the law enforcement, legal and judicial communities.

Chambers: He’s only been a prosecutor for 12 years. He has never been part of a management team in an office. I think he’s trying to take advantage of the controversy in the last four years.

CCN: Are you worried?

Chambers: No. If I’m not doing this, I’ll be doing some other adventure. When I took the job, I said I’m going to do what I think is in the best interest of the people, and that’s what I’ve done.

CCN: Your are known for having an almost unwavering sense of self-confidence — especially in situations where you’ve been called on the carpet. Do you think people are reading you accurately?

Chambers: I make thoughtful and considered decisions. So once I make a decision, I am confident about it. If they’re controversial decisions, I’m willing to accept the controversy. I don’t act until I have the counsel I need.

For example, when I make a determination about the death penalty, I gather our chief deputy DAs and senior DAs and we really look at the case in great detail. But I am not reticent to review my decisions either.

CCN: You have remained steadfast in ardently defending the actions that resulted in your censure. You were accused of violating conduct rules by intervening in a civil matter and threatening to call a grand jury to investigate a collections attorney.

Chambers: One of the reasons I brought up the grand jury to him was because I wasn’t sure he’d call me back if I didn’t.

CCN: A bluff?

Chambers: No, it wasn’t a bluff. It was “I want to investigate this and I want you to call me back and tell me your side of the story.”

I think I’ve learned since then that my voice perhaps carries more power than I realized at the time. One of the questions was, why didn’t I let somebody else do it? That’s a distinction without a difference. Having been a nurse cleaning up human discharge, when you see something, you just do it.

CCN: You are the most powerful prosecutor in four counties. You didn’t realize the weight that a phone call from you would carry?

Chambers: Being the DA is powerful. But when people describe my husband [Nathan Chambers, former chair of the Arapahoe County Republican Party] and I as a “power couple,” that just makes me laugh. I can’t do anything independent of the law and I can’t do anything unless I follow the law. There are so many procedures and safeguards that protect anybody from abusing this power.

But I learned that perhaps I need to speak more softly than I would have as a chief deputy.

CCN: When you were ordered to pay court costs, the taxpayers paid and also footed your legal bill. Why was that appropriate?

Chambers: Because I was doing my job.

CCN: But this was a civil matter. As a district attorney, you prosecute criminal cases.

Chambers: If it had been a normal criminal matter, absolutely. This collections attorney was bullying this victim of identity theft to the point that he was extorting a victim to pay a check he knows she does not owe. I believe I was doing my job in advocating on behalf of a victim of identity theft.

CCN: Six of the seven recent death-penalty cases in Colorado were or are being prosecuted in your district. Half are for murders that occurred in prisons. Since only one person in the state has been executed in 40 years, is it a prudent to pursue so many expensive capital cases when few, if any, are likely to result in an execution?

Chambers: There’s an economy of scale so there are certain things that will bring the price down.

I’m also not sure that other jurisdictions have had the same kinds of crimes that we have. To have somebody dragged to death and die from loss of skin has not happened in any other jurisdiction in the state that I know of.

Seeking the death penalty for a prison murder makes everyone else in the prison safer. If you have a prison where the prisoners assume nobody cares what they do to each other, you have an increased level of violence.

One of the reasons I can prosecute death-penalty cases is because I have taken away several layers of management. We used to have experienced attorneys sitting behind desks and not in the courtroom.

CCN: You’ve also taken heat for your frequent filing of habitual-criminal charges against nonviolent offenders, including halfway house walkaways. Such charges can triple or quadruple the maximum sentence for a repeat offender.

Chambers: The past is the best predictor of the future. Just because we’re charging them with habitual-criminal cases does not mean that we’re not plea bargaining those cases.

Plus, the defense bar is getting this message out to their clients: If you are a repeat offender in this jurisdiction, you will be treated more harshly. So of you don’t want to be treated more harshly, don’t come here and commit your crimes.

If you are given the benefit of community corrections, you need to stay where the judge has told you to stay. Walkaways were initially down 85 percent.

Now, if a repeat offender’s prior three felonies are, for example, addiction, ID theft and distribution, I have told my people that it’s OK to do a treatment program and give them a suspended sentence as a motivator to finish it.

But by the same token, we see people with 10 and 12 felonies who, prior to my administration, were not being treated as repeat offenders. I think it’s unreasonable to explain to Victim No. 13 why that person has not been dealt with a little bit more severely.

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