Jeff Ryan: What to demand of our next D.A.

Jeff Ryan

This November, we will choose a new district attorney for the Fifth Judicial District, which encompasses Summit, Lake, Clear Creek and Eagle counties. Our current D.A., Mark Hurlbert, cannot legally seek reelection. Given the power and reach of the office, we must demand to know the specific policies and practices the two candidates – Republican Scott Turner and Democrat Bruce Brown – have planned. To date, neither hopeful has shown any insight into the deeply flawed nature of the current Office of the District Attorney. There are solutions that would result in a D.A.’s office both effective and just. Neither candidate, though, has demonstrated any understanding or commitment to seeking real improvements.

First, understand that (with a couple of exceptions) the deputy district attorneys working for Mark Hurlbert are honest, ethical, compassionate and tireless. The incompetence and inexperience that characterizes the D.A.’s office resides with one person: Mr. Hurlbert.

Changes are needed, and now. What follows is just a sample.

1. A mandatory case review unit: No felony case should be filed without a thorough examination of its validity. What witnesses say, what the physical evidence seems to show; this is the easy stuff. Real review requires examination of each case from the viewpoint of the defense. That is the surest way to recognize a case’s weaknesses and fix them before a case is filed.

2. Thorough investigation. If the police balk at doing the hard work it takes to make a case, the D.A. should reject charges. It is inexcusable, though routine here, that police reports fail to identify every officer that responded to a crime scene. These are witnesses. Worse is the failure to identify civilian witnesses, let alone get statements from them. In one local case, an eyewitness went to the police and offered evidence that contradicted the victim’s claims. This officer told no one of this witness, and made no report. Had the prosecutor known of this witness and failed to inform the defense, he could have been disbarred. Jurors cited this officer’s misconduct as a major reason they acquitted the defendant.

3. Do not approve cases until you are confident you can prove every element beyond a reasonable doubt. This seems so obvious it is embarrassing to even say it. Every criminal offense is defined by specific elements that must each be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Yet cases are routinely brought to trial despite the fact a necessary element can’t be proven.

4. Prepare, prepare, prepare! I can’t count the number of cases where the prosecutor has never even spoken to his witnesses until the morning of trial.

5. Exercise perspective. Defendants are all different. Some are irredeemable thugs, while others are basically decent people who made a dumb mistake. Should they get the same plea offers when charged with the same crime? Do I even have to answer that question?

6. Victims and witnesses often have agendas unrelated to justice of the truth. If a prosecutor doesn’t get this, he should find another line of work. Labeling someone a “victim” no more makes them blameless than calling someone a “defendant” makes them guilty.

7. Avoid junk science. DNA evidence is hard, valid science. Clinical psychology is not. It cannot be verified by the scientific method. It is at best voodoo, and has no place in a courtroom.

8. Training. All DDAs should be constantly required to undergo in-house and other professional training.

9. Finally, try the cases that matter and that you can prove. Accept, too, that some cases, no matter how convinced everyone is of a suspect’s guilt, must be rejected because they can’t be proven.

Under the current district attorney, we have suffered the debacle of the Kobe Bryant case. The D.A. squandered time and resources to conduct a jury trial about a snowball fight. And a man who nearly murdered a woman had his charges reduced from attempted second-degree murder to criminal mischief, as if he had merely smashed her car’s windshield. That man walks among us today. We deserve better. Who thinks we’ll get it?

Jeff Ryan is a former assistant Cook County State’s Attorney, Fifth Judicial Deputy District Attorney and Summit County Court Judge. He is currently in private practice in Breckenridge. Contact him at

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