Backlog of cases and a single prosecutor create dire situation
A dozen trials, including five sexual assault cases and two murders, are scheduled to be prosecuted over the next month by the 12th Judicial District Attorney’s office, according to Crystal Littrell, a senior assistant attorney general for the state AG office.
With only one prosecutor currently on the DA staff, Littrell is having to bring in prosecutors from other jurisdictions in the state as Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser said would occur following the resignation of Alonzo Payne.
“It’s a pretty dire situation with busy dockets,” Littrell said in briefing commissioners from across the San Luis Valley during a meeting Monday. Littrell will manage the affairs of the local district attorney’s office until a DA is appointed by Gov. Jared Polis to serve out the remainder of Payne’s term. He was elected DA in 2020.
Payne resigned following a state investigation into victims’ rights complaints and a push for a recall vote against him.
Littrell, in her initial review, said cases either had not been litigated or were just getting dismissed or inappropriately given plea deals by Payne and his staff. The office has a backlog of 517 adult felony cases and over 100 juvenile cases, with some of the felony cases in jeopardy due to statute of limitations, she said.
“I’m hopeful that we can get this all sorted out and running smoothly again,” said Littrell. “This community needs a functioning prosecutorial office and the rights of the community protected.”
Other DA offices in the state will assist by sending in prosecutors to help with the heavy caseload, said Littrell. The salaries of those prosecutors will be covered by their own jurisdictions, but mileage, hotel and meal reimbursement costs would have to be covered by the six counties in the Valley.
Littrell added that there is a “significant need for increased funds” from the local counties to fully staff the district attorney’s office. The 12th Judicial DA office ideally should have five prosecutors given the case load generated in the Valley, she said.
The six counties together help cover the cost of the district attorney’s office and work with the DA on an annual budget.
Littrell is a veteran state prosecutor who has been recognized as prosecutor of the year. Her boss, Attorney General Phil Weiser, also spoke to the commissioners to reinforce that an independent monitor will be put in place to ensure victims rights are not violated as occurred under Payne.
Alamosa County Commissioner Mike Yohn raised with Weiser whether plea deals arranged by Payne had to be honored. Weiser said the DA office would honor any plea agreements but that a judge could reject a plea deal once the case got into court.
Littrell said there were provable first-degree murder cases pled down and that the DA office is “trying to unring some of those bells.”
“I’m definitely going to need as much assistance as I can get,” she said.
Alamosa County Commissioner Lori Laske asked Littrell what can be done differently under the next district attorney. “Training is the biggest thing needed,” Littrell said. A fully-staffed office and training and role modeling with an experienced prosecutor “is going to be huge.”