Interview by Tanya Ishikawa
Police officers who kill an elk on a residential street, a woman who cuts open a pregnant mother to steal her baby, and the alleged murderer of a child beauty queen—these types of people are on Stan Garnett’s mind daily. As District Attorney for the 20th Judicial District, Garnett is responsible for determining how court cases are prosecuted in Boulder County. He oversees a staff of 80, including prosecutors, investigators, victim advocates and administrative assistants, tasked with seeking justice in the most infamous crimes as well as lesser incidents where the law is broken.
Elected in 2008, Garnett is a longtime Boulder resident who earned his J.D. degree at CU. After working in the Denver District Attorney’s Office, he was a trial lawyer for 22 years, specializing in complex litigation at the state and federal levels. He has practiced before the United States Supreme Court, the 10th and 11th Circuit Courts of Appeal, and the Colorado Appellate Courts, and in state and federal trial courts across the United States.
Boulder Magazine: What is your philosophy about the district attorney’s role in our legal system?
Stan Garnett: The district attorney’s position is important because it’s the district attorney’s job to set clear priorities for law enforcement in the jurisdiction. The district attorney and his or her staff have to make the decision about what cases to initiate in the justice system and what cases to take to trial. It’s a position in which you make a lot of decisions, and you have to make decisions that reflect the values of your community.
How do you gauge the values of the community?
It’s one of the most interesting things about the job. One of the ways I gauge it is I have lived here a long time and I really know Boulder. Boulder is really in my core. My dad went to Boulder High School, and I have lived here nonstop since 1968 [sixth grade], so I really understand the community. I spend a lot of time out in the community going to church groups, Rotary Clubs and chambers of com-merce, and meeting with anybody who wants to meet with me. I want to hear their views.
One of the most important ways to know the priorities of the community is to listen very closely to what our juries think about our cases, because the jury process is a really wonderful way to include the community in the criminal justice system. We pay very close attention to what our verdicts are and how our juries respond.
What issues were of concern to you when you came into office?
I felt the office had become a little too passive. I felt the office had let others in the criminal justice system kind of encroach on the role of the district attorney. I felt it was important that a district attorney’s office be very focused, very strong and very committed to taking as many cases to trial as possible.
How successful have you been in addressing these issues over the past six years?
We’ve been very successful with those priorities. I have an excellent staff. I think without a doubt I have the best staff of any district attorney’s office of this size in the country. We have more than tripled the number of felony trials that we do, and more than doubled the number of misdemeanor trials.
How would you rank your top three concerns going forward as DA?
The first is we continue to make sure we get a good handle on the issue of sexual assault in our community. We recently established the SANE [Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner] program with the help of Boulder County, the university and Boulder Community Health. The SANE program provides rape-kit evaluations, which are essential to build prosecutable sex-assault cases. We are seeing an awful lot of sex-assault cases being reported now that SANE capacity is available.
Prior to reintroduction of the SANE program this year [it had been unavailable since 2002], if someone reported a sex assault, they had to go to Loveland or Denver to have a rape-kit examination done. You can imagine: A victim of a sex assault makes the report, and that’s a difficult process. They go to the police; they make the report. Then they find out that to put together the evidence necessary for the SANE examination to be able to prosecute the case, they have to spend a couple hours in a car driving somewhere else, being examined in another facility, and coming back. Having this capacity in Boulder County is terrific, and it is great for sex-assault victims and others in the community.
Number two, I want to continue to be quite proactive about using the law to protect the vulnerable in our community. I am a liberal Democrat but I have what I call a Robert Kennedy view of being a prosecutor. Robert Kennedy was a liberal Democrat but he was a very tough prosecutor when he was [U.S.] attorney general. And he saw the law as one of the best tools to protect those in our community who were vulnerable: the poor, immigrants, elderly, different groups that end up being victims of crime in a disproportionate amount. I want to continue to be proactive about using the law, using this office, to both educate people so that they don’t become victims of crime, and if they do, to prosecute, and particularly in those vulnerable populations.
The final thing is less dramatic, but we continue to struggle with [our physical facility], which is difficult. I want to continue to work with the county to make sure we have a modern office building that is appropriate for the work that my staff does. It’s not totally clear what’s possible. A lot of other counties have found big chunks of land that you can make a justice complex in. We don’t really have that in Boulder, because the land is all committed to other uses. So it’s probably going to be in this building [the Justice Center at Sixth and Canyon]. We’re working with the courts. I’ve enjoyed a very collaborative relationship with the chief judge [Maria Berkenkotter] because she’s committed to improving the court facilities as well.
Can you describe how you think law enforcement agencies and the justice system should interact and work together?
It’s a key issue. One thing that I spent a lot of time doing before I took office was studying what some of the problems have been in the past in law enforcement in Boulder County. And a great example of the problems was the Ramsey case, which I’ve talked about a fair amount. One of the fundamental problems in the Ramsey case was there were very unhealthy relations between the district attorney and the Boulder Police Department. So, first of all, you’ve got to have very strong relationships. Everybody needs to know each other. We need to train officers in search and seizure, interrogation and legal issues. We need to listen to the police about how we handle their work. We need to know each other and work well together.
On the other hand, the district attorney sometimes has to make tough calls about the police. In my time as district attorney we’ve prosecuted about 18 different police officers for various crimes. The most notorious, of course, was the elk case, which I tried myself – which is a great example of the kind of relationship you have to have. We went very hard after two cops who were corrupt, who had killed that elk and then lied about it. And we went after them with everything we had. We did it with the support of the investigative capacity of the Boulder Police Department. So it’s got to be a strong relationship, but it’s got to be an honest relationship. When there are problems in the police department, the district attorney has to be able to go after that.
How are you affected by cases with high media exposure, like the attack on Michelle Wilkins, the pregnant Longmont woman whose fetus died after being cut out of her body earlier this year?
Great question, because Boulder always has a handful of marquee cases, whether it’s the elk, whether it was the Susannah Chase case, and of course this case with Dynel Lane [who entered a plea of not guilty on the day of this interview, July 23, and has a trial date set for March 2016]. Basically, we handle those cases no differently than any others. We focus on the evidence, we focus on what’s just, and we seek to get a just result.
However, a community like Boulder has the right to expect the district attorney to be competent, just and transparent. What I try to do is make sure that we explain what we’re doing. Of course we have a lot of ethical restrictions on what we can say about pending cases, but I try to be available, I try to be clear, and I try to answer questions. The community doesn’t expect us to be perfect but they do expect us to be pretty darned good, and we are good. The community needs to feel that they’ve got a district attorney’s office that can handle high-profile cases in a way that is not embarrassing.
How have you handled that balance of being transparent while not revealing details in an unethical way?
Sure. Let me talk about the elk case because the elk case is done. I have no ethical restrictions; I can say anything I want about it. We currently have another case that I won’t talk about much because we are in the process of charging it, but it involves a pit bull that was shot with a shotgun.
Any case involving an animal that was hurt provokes very strong emotions, really in any community, but especially in ours. When the elk was killed it was New Year’s Day of 2013, and the community reaction was very, very strong. And so I discussed it with Catherine [Olguin, DA’s Office public information officer], who has been incredibly essential and helpful to me in figuring out how to deal with the community here. We decided to use that case as a kind of a learning experience for the community about what the district attorney actually does. Because what you initially get with a case like that is a wave of very strong reaction. Within 24 hours, I had people from around the world telling me what I should charge, what the sentence should be, and what should happen to those guys.
The reality is a well-run district attorney’s office doesn’t make decisions based on community reaction. We make them based on evidence and what the facts of the case are. So I wrote a guest opinion explaining that. I did two press conferences on the elk case. In the first one I came out and I said, ‘I can’t really tell you much. Let me tell you why I can’t tell you much.’ I tried to be transparent about what the process was. And we did the same with Dynel Lane, where at first I said here generally are the parameters, and I announced what the charges were and how we got there.
What I’ve tried to do is explain the decisions, explain what the process will be, because a lot of times the community doesn’t really know: How long will this take? When will there be a trial? I try to make sure that I am available to answer those questions, and by and large that’s worked pretty well. I still have plenty of people who don’t agree with decisions that I’ve made. But most of the time, what the community wants to know is that somebody is in charge who is capable of making good decisions and willing to explain why they’re doing what they’re doing.
You’re on record as saying that jury trials are important, as compared to plea bargains. Why do you
think jury trials are so important?
There are so many reasons. The first one is, as I mentioned, it involves the community in the process. People involved in law enforcement and the courts have a tendency to be a little secretive about what they’re doing, because they tend to be kind of bureaucratic and they’re professionals, and they deal with this stuff all the time. Jury trials bust that wide open because they’re public. Anybody can come and watch. The press can come and watch. And we include, depending on whether it’s a misdemeanor or a felony, six or 12 members of the community who are the ultimate decisionmakers. That means my deputies have to be quite skilled at knowing what juries will do with the case, and the only way you get that is if you try a lot of cases and you know what the community thinks. And then, we always have to respect the decision of the jury, and that’s a very important thing.
The next reason they are very important is that they make my lawyers better lawyers. One of the key things is that when we do get a marquee case, a case of Dynel Lane or of the elk or of a high-profile homicide, I want to have absolutely top-notch lawyers who can handle that case well. Usually in those kinds of cases, the defense will bring in very strong defense lawyers, sometimes from Denver. And I want to make sure we can go toe to toe with those folks.
Number three, it makes the cops better. Police officers who are cross-examined in a public courtroom learn to be more thorough, more careful, and that if they make a mistake it can have consequences on the case. None of that gets aired in a plea-bargaining context.
And then finally, the coverage that we get provokes a lot of reaction from the community about what we’re doing and how we’re handling things, and it helps me get better at setting priorities.
Many of us are still troubled by the outcome of the JonBenét Ramsey murder. You’ve disagreed with former DA Mary Lacy’s exoneration of the Ramsey family. Why?
We would love to get justice for JonBenét. As I’ve said from the very beginning, the definitive issue with the JonBenét case is, what does the evidence show? I disagreed with exoneration [of her parents, John and Patsy Ramsey] because I did not think it was the appropriate role of the district attorney to issue an exoneration in a case like that.
[After] grand-jury documents were revealed, I did a guest opinion which said that district attorneys are not priests. Everybody is presumed innocent. Our job is to determine whether there’s enough evidence to charge someone, and if there’s not, we pretty much keep our mouths shut and move forward.
The evidence in the Ramsey case is extremely confusing, extremely compromised. It’s been a fundamental problem with that case from the very beginning, from the crime scene to an unlimited number of mistakes made in that case by the police, by the prosecution, by all kinds of folks. So I felt that the exoneration gave a definitive sense to the case that is not warranted by the state of the evidence, and I also think it’s confusing if people believe that the district attorney’s job is to go around issuing absolution to people.
Is this still an active case with justice being pursued for JonBenét?
We’ve done about everything we can with the evidence. We’ve solved almost 20 cold cases since I took over; it’s been a real priority. We’d love to solve the Ramsey case. The evidence at the moment is not in a position where we can file charges on anyone.
What lessons does the Ramsey case provide for future prosecutions?
Four basic lessons. The first one is have good relations with your police. Listen to them. Work with them. Have vigorous but strong relationships with them.
Number two: Have grand-jury capacity. You have to have people in your office who are able to do good grand-jury work. One of the many problems with Ramsey was that they waited almost two years to take the case to the grand jury. That was partly because there was nobody in the office who had the capacity to take the case to the grand jury, because they never used a grand jury in the ’90s.
Number three is to have excellent, excellent lawyers on staff, the best lawyers that you can get. An office like mine should always be able to have terrific trial lawyers.
And the final lesson from Ramsey is make sure that you have appropriate support from prosecution at the crime scene of a case. We have now a rapid-response on-call system where, anytime there is a major crime in Boulder County, I’ve got a deputy at the scene within minutes—not to do the investigation, because our job is not to do the investigation, but to help the police make sure that they do a great investigation and they have appropriate legal backup. So the bottom line is, the DA’s job is a job of making tough decisions. You can’t make tough decisions if you don’t have excellent staff and if you are not set up to be very focused on that.
You ran unsuccessfully for Colorado attorney general in 2010. What would your priorities have been as
[Laughs] It was interesting. It was a very tough year for Democrats. In a short campaign, I ended up doing almost as well as all the incumbent Democrats who ran that year. And I ended up doing much better than last year’s Democrat who ran. So I felt like it was a successful campaign.
My priority would have been to do on a broader level what I have done here, which is to bring a very clear set of priorities to the attorney general’s office. I would have focused a lot on natural-resource protection and consumer protection, just like we’ve done here. And I also would have tightened up the management of that office and the chain of command within the office.
What does tightening up management mean?
[The Colorado AG’s Office] has not been managed for a long time by somebody with a lot of experience managing lawyers. That’s all I’ve really ever done, in addition to being a trial lawyer. When I was at my private firm, I managed dozens and dozens of lawyers. I know how to do it, and that office needs someone at the top who knows how to get people focused and doing their best work.
What would you like to see the current state attorney general focus on?
Consumer protection is a huge issue. Again, it’s the Robert Kennedy view of law enforcement. The rule of law more than anything else is a tool to protect the poor, the disenfranchised and the vulnerable in our society. The attorney general needs to do that just like a DA does.
Many people believe we have myriad issues with our current election system. What are your views on that?
It works pretty well, actually. It’s my responsibility to investigate any allegations of electoral fraud in Boulder County. We see very little of that.
The mail ballot system works pretty well. It’s changed the dynamic of elections, particularly for those of us who run for office. When I first ran for office for school board in 1997, everything was done with the focus on one election day, so you would calculate your campaign to hit a crescendo a couple of days before that. Now, with mail-in ballots, people vote over six weeks, so calculating what you are going to do in campaigns has become more complicated. That’s been a challenge. But the reality is our vote system is accurate. I would do everything I could to open up the franchise to make it easier for people to register to vote, to change their address, that kind of thing, but overall I think our system works pretty well.
Would you say the same for the campaign process—does that work well?
Money in campaigns is a huge issue, huge issue. One of the delightful things about running for local office is you’re not required to raise millions of dollars. When I ran for attorney general, I raised a little over a half-million dollars for that race in six months. … What happens with raising money is you get focused on that; it becomes your focus and yet it’s not exactly clear what difference it makes. Money definitely has a corrupting influence. I’d love to find a way to get it out of both state and national elections, but it’s very hard to do.
What are your future political plans? You can run for a third term as DA in 2016; will you? How about another elected office?
I certainly plan to run again. I’m having a wonderful time. I am a really lucky person to have this job. I tell people it’s one of the best elected jobs in America. The district attorney position, under the Colorado system of government, is a great position because you have so much freedom to focus on what you think is appropriate.
I don’t know about future [elected] positions. I love practicing law. At my core, I am a trial lawyer, and I’m sure I’ll always practice law in some capacity. I enjoy being an executive, running an office and working with people, and I love mentoring young lawyers. I’ll see what remains available to do going forward, but I don’t have any specific plans.
You were raised in Boulder. Were you born here?
My dad’s family is from Boulder. He worked for the phone company, Mountain States Telephone and Telegraph, so we moved between all the different states a lot. I was actually born in Utah, and then I lived in Denver early in my childhood. I moved here in sixth grade and have lived here since then.
You went to Fairview High, then CU, and after practicing law in Denver for more than 20 years, you came back here. What is it about our city and county that still attracts you?
There are so many things. First of all, it’s a beautiful setting and I’m really proud of the job that I’ve done of protecting the setting. And as I often point out, if you have any question about that, go to Colorado Springs, which has a very similar setting to ours and they haven’t done nearly as good a job of protecting it as we have.
I also really like the vitality of people in Boulder. I like to say that Boulder is a place where everybody has an opinion about everything. If you are going to be in public office, you have to have a thick skin because people are going to tell you if they agree with you or not, but I like that. I like the kind of back-and-forth and constant discussion of issues that that brings.
And then, as district attorney I have really gotten to enjoy the downtown area, which I had not always fully appreciated. I live in Boulder but I didn’t spend my days here. The city has done a terrific job of building and enhancing the quality of this as one of the premier cities in the United States.
I should note that Boulder County, which is my jurisdiction, has a lot of terrific cities. Longmont is amazing. Longmont has done a beautiful job of developing its own unique culture and setting. For shopping, it’s a wonderful area as well. Louisville, Lafayette, Erie, Superior are all great communities. Lyons is amazing, and the job they have done recovering from the flood. Nederland—I get a kick out of Nederland. What’s the latest initiative going to be there? They’re all wonderful cities with educated and vibrant communities, and it’s a privilege to get to work with those folks.
What activities do you like to do here?
I ride my bicycle almost every day, usually up Flagstaff or up Poorman and Sunshine. I do love to fly-fish. We have a cabin up in Larimer County where we go to fish a lot, but my wife and I fish Boulder Creek pretty regularly, and I enjoy that. I also golf—not very well, but I enjoy it.
Then I have been learning Spanish, which has been delightfully fun. That’s not purely a hobby but essentially it is, because it’s very relaxing. I went to Mexico twice last year, and I [went] to Colombia [this August]. I have been focusing on developing an understanding of the legal systems in Latin American countries, which has really been interesting. That travel is half vacation, half work. Those are things I don’t use any public funds for. I usually pay for it myself or somebody donates it. I went to Monterrey last year, and before that I went to Chihuahua and worked on a corn farm there with a family of one of my employees, so that was really fun.
I am fascinated with the interaction between Latin American culture and the United States. In Colombia [I gave] speeches about the differences between the American justice system and the Colombian justice system, which is a much more European model. We have a lot of problems in our justice system and there is much that we can learn. And of course, they have a lot they can learn.
Those are the kinds of things I like to do. I’ve always loved to read and kind of debate the way the world should be.
Finally, what’s your best advice to our readers on how not to run afoul of the DA’s office?
Use common sense. Know generally what our laws are. We spend a lot of time educating people about our laws who are not familiar with them. Our laws about alcohol, sexual conduct and domestic violence are much stricter than most people have any idea. And it’s good to be aware of that. But the most important thing you can do to avoid coming into contact with the DA’s office is be careful how much you drink. Alcohol is a factor in probably 80 to 85 percent of the crimes that we see, and people that have drinking problems almost always have problems with the law.
Tanya Ishikawa is a CU-Boulder graduate who regularly contributes articles and interviews to Brock Media publications. She also makes documentary films, participates in environmental activism, edits magazines and books, and has served as a city council member and mayor pro tem in Federal Heights.