Greene: Copout

DA Beth McCann and AG Cynthia Coffman have jumped on the train to railroad Clarence Moses-EL.

Greene: Copout

Friday’s deadline came and went for Beth McCann to make things right in one of Colorado’s longest and most twisted injustices. In choosing to perpetuate the 30-year railroading of Clarence Moses-EL, Denver’s purportedly reform-minded district attorney did so in the most spineless way possible – by feigning that the decision was solely up to Attorney General Cynthia Coffman.

Let it be said that both McCann and Coffman are on the wrong side of the facts. And, for the record, they’re also on the wrong side of decency.

If Moses-EL’s name doesn’t ring a bell, the details of his ordeal may jog your memory.

This is the case in which a court sentenced a man to 48 years in prison for a 1987 rape based solely on the victim’s statement that his identity as her attacker came to her in a dream.

This is the case in which, from prison, Moses-EL raised $1,000 from fellow inmates and won a court order to test the DNA, only to have Denver police take the evidence box, which was clearly marked “DO NOT DESTROY,” and toss it in a dumpster.

This is the case former DA Mitch Morrissey wouldn’t reopen even after his office learned that the first man the victim had named as her assailant committed two other rapes in strikingly similar fashion. Morrissey then fought like hell to keep confessions by that rapist, LC Jackson, from coming to light.

When a judge finally vacated Moses-EL’s conviction and set him free after 28 years in prison, Morrissey insisted on re-trying him. The jury heard the prosecution’s ginned-up evidence, then handed down an acquittal.

Colorado has a law that pays the wrongly convicted $70,000 for each year they spent behind bars. For Moses-EL, who lost nearly half his life to this case, compensation would add up to nearly $2 million. He’s seeking every penny, to which he’s more than entitled. He has also filed a civil rights lawsuit.

The compensation law invites the DA’s office that handled – or mishandled – the conviction in question and the attorney general’s office to state their positions on whether the applicant should be compensated. Their deadline to do so was Friday. With one court motion, McCann could have put an end to her office’s three decades of persecuting Moses-EL to justify its own egregious missteps and those of the police department it relies on. After all, she said on the campaign trail that if the decision were up to her, she wouldn’t have retried him and instead would have dismissed the charges.

Politically, that was an easy stance because the trial started before the election. Still, coming from an anti-sex crimes crusader seeking to become Denver’s first female DA, it sent the clear message that she believed in Moses-EL’s  innocence.

McCann’s message has changed now that she’s in office. She told me last week she wouldn’t be taking a position in the case, then said earlier this week she’d be concurring with Coffman’s decision. After a groundswell of public criticism, she apparently changed her mind Friday back to not taking a position.  However she frames it, she’s effectively opposing Moses-EL’s quest to be compensated for the mistakes, missteps, and mistruths of a system she promised to “clean up.” Coffman’s office wouldn’t have opposed compensation if McCann supported it. 

I outlined McCann’s rickety justifications in a column Tuesday. I also noted that she has acknowledged to me and others that the facts of the case aren’t all that prompted her decision. Because Moses-EL named members of her office in his civil lawsuit, she said she’s compelled to defend them. A year after McCann the candidate pointed out that Denver DA’s office has railroaded Moses-EL to defend its own indefensible mishandling of this case, McCann the DA has jumped on the train.

Moses-EL’s defense lawyer, Gail Johnson, described the decision as “the height of cruelty.” “Today could have been a step forward in repairing the extreme harm that has been done to Mr. Moses-EL,” she said Friday. “Instead, our public officials chose to double down on injustice.”

I’d have more respect for McCann if she owned her decision. Instead, she’s putting out public statements touting her two-year-old opposition to retrying Moses-EL, as if that mattered – or as if any of the 12,011 people who signed a petition demanding his compensation could give a damn.

Even more cynical are the misinformation she’s putting out about the compensation process and the ways she’s pretending to pass responsibility for opposing Moses-EL to Coffman.

“As I know you know, it is important for everyone to understand that whether or not Mr. Moses-EL is compensated is not my decision. I believe that much of the concern about my position arises from a misconception about the nature of the upcoming proceedings,” she wrote Friday.

She asserts that Moses-EL “asks that a jury make a determination that he is actually innocent of the sexual assault for which he was convicted in 1988, and he seeks monetary compensation for the years he spent in prison.” But, as McCann well knows, that’s not how the process works. Moses-EL is asking for compensation. If McCann and Coffman would agree he’s eligible for it, there would be no new jury trial and the case would be over.

McCann implies, falsely, that she’s not allowed to weigh in on the matter.

“Because the compensation sought by Mr. Moses-EL would come from the state general fund and the state is the party being sued, the Colorado Attorney General’s office will make the decision as to whether and how to proceed with the case. The Denver District Attorney’s office is not a party to the case and is not taking a position,” she wrote.

Despite the word “Denver” in the title “Denver District Attorney” McCann is in fact a lawyer for the state just like Coffman. The law clearly says both offices have “concurrent authority to intervene as parties to a petition” for compensation. Both McCann’s office and Coffman’s represent the named party: The state of Colorado – meaning us, the people in “The People v. Moses-EL,” the clients in whose names they’re trying to rip off a man whose life the state has ripped apart for three decades.

“I cannot in good conscience tell the victim that the State will voluntarily pay nearly two million dollars of taxpayer money to the man she has steadfastly identified as her attacker,” Coffman said in a press release Friday, parroting the DA office’s evidentiary revisionism as if it were an act of good conscience.

McCann is hiding under Coffman’s skirt. And Coffman, a Republican who in her run for governor is newly championing women’s issues, seems all too happy to let her do it.

For her part, McCann, who has been in office for just a year, seems already to be campaigning for re-election. At the end of her letter about her Moses-EL decision Friday, she touted herself as a criminal justice reformer who not only has read the book “The New Jim Crow,” but “had discussions in the office” about it.

“I believe I am very much doing what I promised in my campaign,” she wrote.

Flickr photo by Russ Nelson.

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About the Author

Susan Greene

A recovering newspaper journalist and Pulitzer finalist. Her criminal justice reporting includes “Trashing the Truth,” with Miles Moffeit, and “The Gray Box.”
susan@coloradoindependent.com | 720-295-8006 | @greeneindenver

3 Comments

  1. Will Morrison on said:

    Why is it that those in power are ALWAYS such SCUM? These two DISHONORABLE women need to be FIRED and NEVER allowed in such a position of power again. They had the opportunity to do the RIGHT thing, and BOTH of them decided to screw the black man instead. AGAIN. These two should be given the sentence they want to impose on this man, a COMPLETE LACK of justice. I thought their damn job was TO PROVIDE JUSTICE for the CITIZENS of this state. Seems they find justice to be held up for ONLY the white people. To HELL with this, and to hell with THEM.

    We need to do BETTER for ourselves than this. These two need to be CANNED. They HAD a chance to do the RIGHT thing and they BAILED, both in an INCREDIBLY COWARDLY WAY. They BOTH need to be finding new jobs that DON’T involve US at all. DISHONORABLE SCUM!

  2. Byron on said:

    Coffman is just the latest example of the republican police state that is being put into place to keep us in line.

    Making a person of color the scapegoat is straight from the repub playbook. They only let him go because a jury of his peers made the decision instead of the Colorado republicans. You could almost hear Coffman gnashing her teeth.

    For the sake of our country, please VOTE this November. And vote for the Democrat. It is important for the future of our democracy.

  3. Valine Demos on said:

    This is the worst injustice the Colorado Justice system has allowed.

    My Brother was wrongly accused of a sexual assault on his niece who was after 3 yrs., won both Appeals, was found innocent of all crimes. He served 3 years in one of our oldest prisons Territorial state Prison in Canon City, Colorado. I drove 3 hrs. each way to visit my innocent brother every other weekend. Knowing the crime was by our justice system failing and should be held accountable for ruining my loving brothers life. He will never be the brother we all knew!!!!

    Knowing he was innocent was heartbreaking to me.
    I was in the 80’s an activist against Violence. Another female soldier and myself were kidnapped, beaten, raped and gun games were played for over 8 hrs. by military men let out of prison to serve in our military on wavers. Which many of us and great congress women and men to support us make it illegal to let violent criminals out of Federal prison to serve in our wars.

    Now this, not one of many sexual assaults in our military by military were ever convicted of crimes they did do.
    Don’t take this wrong the majority of our brave heros are not these criminals.

    And now we go the opposite here in Colorado, cover up our injustice , let our innocent convicted go broke, serve time, no counseling, no assistance, now to take away the compensation Colorado Statues support. What is wrong 1!!!!! NEVER EVER GIVE UP !!!!! WE ALL NEED TO SUPPORT ONE ANOTHER!!!!!

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