By Owen Woods | email@example.com
ANNE Kelly sees the commitment to her job as a prosecutor through her commitment to the victims of crime.
It’s why she accepted the appointment from Gov. Jared Polis to serve as interim district attorney for the 12th Judicial District four weeks ago, and why she is now on the ballot running for district attorney in the November midterm election.
She created an entire program for addressing the needs of domestic violence victims during her time in the 20th Judicial District. Seeing a clear need for that in the San Luis Valley, she applied to be appointed and said she’s right where she wants to be.
“When I applied for the appointment, I knew there was a possibility that I would need to also run for office. And when I took the appointment, I knew that I was fully committed to the Valley,” she said in an interview with Alamosa Citizen.
“And so to the extent that that means that I needed to run while I was trying to fix the office, that’s trying to sort of repair and move forward from what had been happening. I took on the challenge to be both the appointed district attorney and to run for office because the Valley needs consistency, and I’m totally committed.”
The interim DA invited Alamosa Citizen into the office on San Juan Avenue, one of Main Street’s early 20th Century masonry marvels. For the first time in a long time, the district attorney’s office opened its arms to the public.
As you walk through the building’s sunlit halls and maze of offices, you’ll find Kelly’s office in a southern corner of the building. A busy morning on Main Street breathes life into the office. Sun shines on two whiteboards, filled with trial dates lined up for the next few weeks. Trial work suits Kelly. She said she began a career path that would have led her to the FBI, but after experiencing trial work, she went in full sail.
Following an undergraduate degree in criminal justice and Spanish from the State University of New York at Albany, Kelly went on to Arizona State University to work through a master’s degree in Spanish. Spanish was a way to become a more effective police officer. She wanted to focus on the difficulties that immigrants have in accessing the criminal justice system, but soon found that law school was the path she had to go down.
While attending law school at Fordham University in New York City, she joined the Brendan Moore Trial Advocates team, a competitive mock trial debate team. That’s where Kelly found her passion.
“And so being a prosecutor was really a no brainer for me.”
Kelly went on to work as litigation associate at Hogan Lovells (then Hogan & Hartson) in New York, but soon decided that New York wasn’t for her. The big city costs made it difficult to live as a prosecutor. As many before her have done, she looked West.
“So I came here. Because I love the state and I wanted to get out of New York. It also allowed me to afford to be a prosecutor. The cost of living in New York was so astronomical that you couldn’t work, you couldn’t sort of afford to be a prosecutor in New York City unless you were living in a shoebox on the far side of Brooklyn.”
Her path eventually led to the 20th Judicial District, which encompasses all of Boulder County. During her time there, she created the Domestic Violence Acute Response Team which addressed the needs of victims of domestic violence. Kelly said she created that program to address domestic violence cases better and quicker.
“I created a team that looked at domestic violence cases as they came in from the jail, and responded to those victims immediately, to try to get them hooked up with resources, to try to get more information to assess the lethality risk that the offender posed to them. It’s been really, really effective. And that is a program that I’m most proud of.”
– Anne Kelly
THE first 48 hours after the crime has been committed are vital, she says, because realities start to settle quickly and victims become less inclined to get the help they need or to discuss the specifics with law enforcement or community resources.
“They’re also a lot less willing with the passing of time to disclose facts that would give us a better understanding of how dangerous the offender is,” she said. “And so what I did was I created a team that looked at domestic violence cases as they came in from the jail, and responded to those victims immediately, to try to get them hooked up with resources, to try to get more information to assess the lethality risk that the offender posed to them. It’s been really, really effective. And that is a program that I’m most proud of.”
Addressing the needs of victims is her priority, she said. The creation of the Domestic Violence Acute Response Team has given her a series of tools and procedures to help victims work through the process.
“I think it’s very easy to talk about as a prosecutor to say, ‘Oh, yes, I care about victims, I care about justice. I think victims deserve dignity and respect.’ It’s another thing entirely to work, to change systems to create a scenario where victims are actually heard, and actually respected and actually taken care of. And that’s what I think I did with the acute Response Team.”
Does the Valley need a response team like this?
“Well, the first thing I would say is that domestic violence has no geography, it has no ZIP code.”
During her time reviewing cases in the 12th Judicial District, she’s noticed an alarming theme: domestic violence cases are not being prosecuted in the Valley. Offenders are not being held accountable and victims are requesting that charges be dropped after time has passed.
That stems, she said, from a historic lack of understanding of the dynamics of domestic violence. So when a district attorney chooses to drop charges, that can create a dangerous situation for the victims, for the community and law enforcement, she said.
She intends to work with community partners such as Tu Casa to be able to give victims the necessary, anonymous resources to seek help. Kelly said that involving the victims with the criminal justice system is a barrier that prevents a lot of cases from being tried.
Colorado is a mandatory arrest state when it comes to domestic violence. When police arrive at a scene, they will evaluate the situation and by law have to arrest the primary aggressor. It wasn’t always like that.
“But because it was sort of behind closed doors, and the parties didn’t want the police involved, and everybody just wanted the police to kind of walk away or separate the parties and not make any arrests, offenders would be able to manipulate the system, and that victim would have no recourse. That victim was not safe.
“We didn’t understand 50 years ago the dynamics of domestic violence like we do now,” she said. “By just dismissing cases without taking any action, we’re acting like those police officers that just kind of walked away.”
Addressing drugs and drug addiction in a nuanced way is another priority for Kelly. During her appointment speech in August, she said that she didn’t want to criminalize addiction.
Understanding an addict’s needs in court can be a way to get them help down the line. But she said, as a prosecutor, you still need to hold people accountable for their crimes.
“In other words, you can’t say, ‘Well I’m just not going to prosecute drug crimes.’ That kind of a statement ignores the nuances that are responsible and active in the drug community, the nuances being who are the ones that are distributing? Who are the ones that are consuming? You can’t say, ‘We’re going to lock up everyone that’s in possession of any amount of methamphetamine,’ for example. That doesn’t work either.
“What’s really, really important from an elected district attorney,” she said, “is someone that can look at the problem of addiction in a nuanced way. I have to prosecute crimes, I have to prosecute drug possession, because that’s a crime. But can we use our discretion to divert those people into drug court or divert them into diversion where they can get the resources they need without being prosecuted? Absolutely.”
Looking to the future of how to address drugs and drug crime, Kelly wants to work with every law enforcement agency in the Valley, alongside federal agencies such as the DEA and ATF, to create a drug task force. The drug task force she envisions will be highly trained and highly motivated to go after drug dealers and drug supplies. The task force will be utilized to gather intelligence and evidence to then close up shop for many, heavy-hitting drug suppliers.
“I want, however, drug dealers to understand that they no longer have a free pass in the Valley.”
Her task force vision addresses the core problem and more importantly, she said, allows prosecutions to stick so that drug dealers and suppliers are no longer looking at the Valley as a safe haven.
“What I will tell you is that the communities where I’ve seen drug dealers be cut off from their business, their business be destroyed, is where our community has a very strong drug task force. And what a drug task force is, is law enforcement agencies throughout the community. So it’s not just one agency, it’s everybody kind of working together, contributing members of a law enforcement agency that are specially trained to work exclusively on the drug task force.”
Kelly wants to keep her office doors open. She wants to make sure that the public is aware of what is happening in the district attorney’s office and to show a real effort that change is happening, cases are being tried, and there is a face to the district attorney’s office.
A large part of what has occurred over the past two years is that law enforcement hasn’t been in the office. Alamosa Citizen briefly spoke with an Alamosa Police Department officer who said they hadn’t been in the office in over two years. Kelly called that “unheard of.”
“The absence of that collaboration is really significant,” she said. “And I think the voters ought to know that, and know and see a very stark contrast between my philosophy and the philosophy of other district attorneys that have been in this office.”
She said when a DA does not have a transparent and open door policy, it creates friction when a prosecuting decision is made that is different than what local law enforcement wanted. “If you never explain the reasons why you are approaching it in a different way, then that rift becomes permanent. And that’s what’s been happening.”
The DA’s office has more than 300 backlogged cases that stretch back to 2019. Addressing those cases will take time – close to a year, Kelly said. Filing too many cases at once will “jam up the system.”
Part of the reason for the backlog is a lack of funding in the office, but Kelly said that’s no excuse. “You cannot let cases involving victims of violent crime – sex assaults, homicides, first-degree assault, weapons cases, were all just sitting there.”
To help, she’s recruited Larry Bailey, a former police officer and investigator with the state Attorney General’s Office. Before working with Kelly, he was in charge of intake at the 18th Judicial District. His job was to look at every incoming warrant and help to prioritize them.
They also have to look at the backlog of cases through the statute of limitations. Cases that haven’t been filed that have already surpassed the statute deadline can no longer be filed. Kelly understands the challenges ahead with managing the number of cases and restoring trust in the 12th Judicial District Attorney’s Office.
She was impressed with how the six counties of the San Luis Valley came together to address the problems of the office, and now feels like she’s found a new home and a new part of the state to fight for.
“What warms my heart the most when I came here was hearing about the stories from individual victims,” she said of her short time so far in the Valley. “But then second of all, what you guys did about it. How the Valley came together to fix that problem, and it was a bipartisan supported, united effort, that was pretty extraordinary for me.
“The other thing that I noticed right away,” she said, “was how much people care about each other here.”
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