Will Denver’s District Attorney ever throw the book at killer cops?

It has been three and a half months since Denver police fatally shot unarmed 17-year-old Jessica Hernandez. And the world has changed.

Police killings in South Carolina and Baltimore – among others — have amplified debates on racial profiling and excessive force. And decisions not to press criminal charges against officers for choking Eric Garner to death in Staten Island and gunning down Michael Brown in Ferguson have heightened demands for police accountability and triggered protests far and wide, including in Colorado.

In the meantime, Hernandez’s family and watchdogs in Denver’s Latino, LGBT and civil rights communities are on hold, awaiting word on whether the officers involved in her January 26 shooting death will face criminal charges.

“The investigation and review are still a work in progress,” Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey’s office said this week, offering up no sense of which way the probe is leading.

If Morrissey prosecutes, it would mark the first time in his decade in office he has thrown the book at killer cops. Yet, those close to both sides of the Hernandez case are doubtful that will be his decision.

“We know, based upon the Denver district attorney’s failure to prosecute any police officer for shootings since 1992, we know the result. We know that the Denver district attorney is going to exonerate these police officers,” Qusair Mohamedbhai, the Hernandez family’s lawyer, said on Democracy Now.

If no charges are filed, activists expect tensions will build in a city whose residents – especially Latinos and African Americans — are, as in other communities nationally, demanding change.

“Not prosecuting in Hernandez would make people angry, very angry,” said Alex Landau, to whom Denver awarded a $795,000 legal settlement for a beating by officers Morrissey didn’t prosecute.

“Cities elsewhere in the country are starting to show zero tolerance on this issue. That takes a willingness to prosecute officers who deserve to go to prison,” Landau added. “The question is will this D.A. or the next one do what it takes to end that office’s culture of complicity.”

Morrissey will be term-limited and replaced by the winner of a 2016 election. City residents will vote for district attorney in next June’s primary. Because Denver is predominately Democrat, it’s unlikely the primary winner will face a viable Republican opponent in a November 2016 runoff.

Beth McCann, a state lawmaker and the city’s former safety manager, and Michael Carrigan, a University of Colorado regent and former deputy district attorney, have been campaigning for months, each attending dozens of neighborhood meetings and community forums. Both say trust has been eroded by the recent wave of national news coverage of police killings as well as Denver’s own long string of jailhouse beatings and police-related use-of-force deaths.

All of those deaths have gone unprosecuted since Morrissey took office in 2005. Among them are: last summer’s police killing of Ryan Ronquillo at a Denver funeral home, the fatal tasering of Alonzo Ashley at the Denver Zoo in 2011, an officer’s shooting death of Robert Gonzales during a Cinco de Mayo celebration in 2006 and police’s deadly shooting of Jason Gomez during a 2007 foot chase.

It’s clear from the campaign trail, McCann and Carrigan tell The Colorado Independent, that public trust took a blow last fall when a federal jury awarded $6 million in city tax dollars for the killing of street preacher Marvin Booker at the hands of Denver sheriffs’ deputies whom Hancock’s administration didn’t reprimand and Morrissey didn’t prosecute.

Then came the officers’ killing of Hernandez, a small, unarmed teen whose fatal shooting and subsequent dragging has been reported in conflicting ways by various witnesses – and even by the city itself. Some details in her autopsy report have triggered questions about officers’ accounts of the run-in.

Morrissey has ignored calls for his office to step aside and let a federal agency, such as the FBI, criminally investigate Hernandez’s case. He has dismissed snipes about never having prosecuted killer cops. As his spokeswoman Lynn Kimbrough tells it, “Often this criticism is made by people unaware of the facts or unfamiliar with the legal standards that guide the District Attorney.”

“We invite anyone, especially those who believe charges should have been filed in a particular case, to identify the case,” Kimbrough wrote in an email. “We have repeatedly made this invitation and have asked what case the critic(s) believes was decided incorrectly?”

The newest contender in the D.A. race is rallying behind Morrissey. Kenneth Boyd works as one of Morrissey’s chief deputies and is the nephew of Bill Ritter, Morrissey’s predecessor who later became governor. After kicking off his candidacy this week, he told The Independent that scrutiny about use-of-force and accountability has outpaced reality.

“I don’t believe there’s an excessive force problem in Denver,” he said.

Boyd, McCann, Carrigan and whoever else joins the D.A.’s race will face questions from Landau, who was 19 when Denver police pulled him from a car and beat him after he made an illegal left turn. Neither officer in his case was reprimanded by the safety department nor criminally prosecuted by Morrissey. Both went on to become involved in subsequent use-of-force cases.

“If I had done to them what they did to me, I’d have been killed or at least put in prison for the rest of my life,” Landau says.

Now, at 27, he works as a community organizer for the Colorado Progressive Coalition, which has joined members of other watchdog, youth and community groups in promoting reform and accountability among Denver’s district attorney candidates.

CPC’s members have called for a federal investigation into the city’s safety department. They’ve petitioned Morrissey to prosecute the officers in the Hernandez case. And now, at Landau’s lead, the group is researching the possibility of recalling Morrissey out of office.

“If we’re able to recall Morrissey, or if we’re not able to recall Morrissey at this juncture, the community is tired of watching people get hurt. We’re tired of watching loved ones get killed. We’re just tired of there being no accountability,” Landau said.

On Morrissey’s behalf, Kimbrough defended the D.A.’s record. “This office has probably filed, or at least has brought proceedings against more officers, than the national average,” she wrote. As an example of a case under Morrissey’s tenure, she cites the 2008 charges against Denver police officer Ronald Helm for careless driving.

The last time a Denver officer was charged with murder in connection with an on-duty shooting was 1992, about 13 years before Morrissey took office. A jury acquitted officer Michael Blake of the second-degree murder and manslaughter charges against him.

Boyd notes that legal standards are higher to convict law enforcement officers of murder or manslaughter. “It’s not like (proving) a bar fight or a civilian killing,” he said. Because Morrissey has on a few occasions brought unjustified force charges in cases that haven’t led to death, Boyd added, “It’s an unfair representation to say nobody is being charged in terms of excessive force.”

Morrissey succeeded in extending term limits for the Denver D.A. from two four-year terms to three. City officials say he considered asking for another term-extension, but backed off because he didn’t have support.

Boyd dismisses speculation that Morrissey is trying to anoint him his successor so that he can stay on staff. “This is not something where Mitch came into my office and said ‘Ok, you’re the next one to bat’,” he told The Independent. But, he added, “If Mitch wanted to stay, it would certainly be valuable for this office to continue to draw upon (his) knowledge.”

Boyd distinguishes himself from his boss by asserting, “I think we can do a better job…in our community engagement.” And, if elected, he promises to be more transparent than Morrissey in publicly explaining his decisions not to prosecute cases of officer-involved deaths. Actually prosecuting such cases, he suggested, isn’t likely.

Carrigan agrees the office could “build more credibility if the public understands why you’re not prosecuting.” Police body cameras, he added, also would bolster trust by providing more indisputable evidence about clashes with police.

“Without having access to all the evidence like he does,” Carrigan said he’s in no position to “second guess” Morrissey’s decisions. Still, he added that the $6 million federal jury award in the Marvin Booker wrongful death case “obviously raises some questions.”

Carrigan said he has “some concerns” about how long it’s taking to review the Hernandez case. District attorneys elsewhere have, especially lately, been far more swift in deciding whether to prosecute high-profile police killings. “I think you ought to be deliberate in decisions, but I think the public has more confidence if the review can be completed with some promptness.”

McCann sees public sentiment as mixed. On one hand, she said, “The D.A. has a long way to go in regaining public trust that It’s willing and able to prosecute and hold police accountable if they break the law.” On the other, people are looking to the office to help crack down against a recent rash of gang violence in northeast Denver.

On both issues, she said she hears the most concern from communities of color that they won’t be protected by – and from – city officials.

McCann has watched popular views about law enforcement morph since protests and discontent in Ferguson, New York and Baltimore.

“Those events have brought these concerns more out in the open. People are having more open dialogue about it,” she said. “And that, I think, is healthy.”

Top photo: Alex Landau was beaten by Denver Police when he was 19 and is now organizing a campaign with the Colorado Progressive Coalition to hold the District Attorney’s office accountable for police excessive force cases. Credit: Susan Greene