It was a year ago this week, and noon hour at the Brown Palace. Members of Denver’s City Club lunched on pork loins with cherry demi glace, then greeted their speaker.
With 12 months left of his 12 years in office, Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey was facing unprecedented criticism. A growing chorus of judges, civil rights groups and journalists had been blasting his charging decisions. And a day earlier, a crowd of his critics had commandeered the Martin Luther King Parade, chanting for his ouster.
If Morrissey felt bruised or beleaguered, it didn’t show as he neatened his tie and stepped to the podium. His topic that day would be decidedly upbeat: his legacy as a DNA superhero.
He started by admitting he got a D in high school biology, noting the irony that forensic science propelled his legal career. He went on to describe the traces of blood, skin cells and body fluids he culled from crime scenes, and how he harnessed their genetic coding to throw the book at rapists and murderers. His work with DNA, he said, enabled him to file charges in upwards of 120 cold cases, “more than anywhere in the world.”
The business chiefs, power brokers and other City Club members seemed wowed by Morrissey’s achievements, either unaware of or unconcerned about the discontent outside the wood-paneled banquet room. One admiring City Club member wondered out loud if the DA would also speak at his country club.
Morrissey looked buoyed by the warm reception. After all, he’d told the crowd, “My wife always criticizes me because she says, ‘All you ever talk about is DNA.’ ”
She was right.
As Morrissey was term-limited out of office this week, he left a legacy that spans far beyond his work with DNA and, in many aspects, warrants less praise. What he didn’t say in that luncheon speech or other public appearances is that the field of cases requiring DNA analysis is only a sliver of his office’s load. Most cases pivot not on whodunit crime solving but on the trickier work of weighing criminality against factors such as mental illness, addiction and poverty.
In his preoccupation with DNA, Morrissey’s many critics say he failed to take a nuanced look at what it means to keep the city safe. In his assertions that his charging practices were “color blind,” he turned a blind eye to the fact that, statistically, they weren’t. In his unwavering allegiance to law enforcement, he squandered public trust. And in his zeal to fight and compulsion to win, critics say he lost touch with his main responsibility: to do justice.
“The reverberations of what this DA has done, the harm that over time he has caused in our communities is probably incalculable,” said Lisa Calderon, who co-chairs the Denver chapter of the Colorado Denver Latino Forum and also works in and studies Denver’s criminal justice system.
“There will be a special place in hell for Mitch Morrissey.”
The good guys
Morrissey wouldn’t grant an interview for this story. Nor for my last story about him. Nor, for that matter, for any of my reporting since 2007. The DA who won office pledging “openness” and “accessibility” has made himself available mainly when it benefits him.
It’s no wonder, then, that nearly all profiles written during his dozen years in office have suggested he was predestined for the job. They noted that his grandfather was Colorado’s U.S. Attorney during the Roosevelt and Truman administrations and that his dad, former state representative Mike Morrissey, had a long career as a prominent Denver lawyer. Morrissey himself worked 20 years in the Denver DA’s office before being elected to lead it in 2004.
The articles typically mention his wife Maggie and the money she has raised for domestic violence causes. They depict him as a martyred workaholic who, in the name of the city’s safety, has a habit of putting off well-earned vacations. They note how proud he says he has made his parents. Several of the profiles referred to Morrissey’s tennis game or lovely home in Denver’s Country Club neighborhood or the beat up old blue Miata convertible that seemed incongruous with his station in life. It’s unclear what, exactly, these details were supposed to tell us about the man who had more direct power over people’s lives than anyone in the city.
Morrissey took care to advertise that power. He’d insist on being interviewed in front of a wall of law books. He kept a double helix model on his desk as a totem of the cases he won using DNA as his weapon. Occasionally, he’d sport a tie emblazoned with DNA coding. “It’s important,” I once heard him say, “to let the bad guys know we’re outsmarting them.”
Morrissey has done commendable work with genetic fingerprinting. In an era when only a handful of prosecutors nationwide were working with DNA, he tried and won his first case involving DNA evidence in 1989. In 2003, he, Denver Police Lt. Jon Priest and Gregg LaBerge from Denver’s crime lab founded the city’s Cold Case Project, which has helped him solve well over 100 cases dating back to 1980. He won millions in federal dollars for DNA projects, including a state-of-the-art crime lab that affords Denver police and prosecutors the luxury of not having to wait for the state lab to analyze their evidence. That, he has said, helps him yank the “bad guys” off the street sooner.
“There are any number of members of our community who probably can sleep a lot better at night because our office and the (Denver Police Department) were pioneering” DNA projects, said attorney David Lamb, a former Denver prosecutor whose wife still works in the office.
Lamb’s first impression of Morrissey stuck with him. It was in court, watching him prosecute a rape trial. Lamb remembers his ferocity cross-examining defense witnesses and the compassion for the victim he conveyed to the jury. “He always cared about the victims and the victims’ families, probably just as much or more than anybody I worked with. That says a lot about his work as a prosecutor.”
Before his retirement, investigator Dan Chun worked for five elected district attorneys, including Morrissey and his two predecessors. As Chun tells it, former Denver DAs “Norm Early and Bill Ritter were always walking around shaking hands and hugging people and telling people they loved you.”
But not Morrissey.
“He didn’t glad-hand or act like he was always running for something. He’d come by once in awhile and ask how your cases were going. He left people alone to do their job and people liked that,” Chun said.
Helen Morgan has worked 24 years as a Denver prosecutor, first as Morrissey’s colleague and then as one of his top managers. In her dozen years as chief of the office’s county court division, she says he never reviewed her performance.
“Personally, I would have liked that input and think it’s necessary,” said Morgan, who ran to replace Morrissey in the November election but lost to State Rep. Beth McCann.
Given Morrissey’s well-known my-way-or-the-highway approach toward those who challenge him, McCann has raised eyebrows in the office by asking Morgan to stay. “That’s a way women do things differently: We get over it, we can get along,” said McCann, who swore in Tuesday as the city’s first female district attorney.
She has told deputy district attorneys Doug Jackson, George Poland, Alfredo Hernandez, LaMar Sims that they’ll not be part of her administration. In courts of law and courts of public opinion, Morrissey relied on all four to defend his decisions.
“Raging anger machine”
In 2015, Denver’s chief district judge learned that Morrissey had decided not to prosecute a sheriff’s deputy for attacking a shackled inmate.
The incident involved a suspect named Anthony Waller, who politely was asking another judge a question in her courtroom when Deputy Brady Lovingier suddenly yanked him by his body shackles and slammed him against a glass wall. The attack was captured on a courtroom videotape. Internal affairs investigators deemed the use of force unprovoked. Yet Morrissey didn’t charge Lovingier, the son of former sheriff’s department head Bill Lovingier.
Chief Judge Michael Martinez took the rare move of ordering Morrissey to court to explain why he hadn’t pressed charges. But the DA didn’t show, citing personal travel plans. In his place, he sent one of his top deputies.
Doug Jackson told the judge he believed Lovingier’s account that Waller had lost his balance and that Lovingier helped “ease Waller to the ground.” Hitting the courtroom wall, Jackson said, “was sort of a confluence of momentum that occurred.” (See the video, linked here.) Jackson went on to say he took the word of three other sheriff’s deputies who witnessed the incident and told him Lovingier did nothing wrong. He acknowledged that the DA’s office never questioned Waller or the judge who witnessed the attack and considered Lovingier’s handling of the inmate excessive.
Judge Martinez didn’t conceal his disgust for the weakness of the DA’s review and for Jackson’s slanted interpretation of the attack.
“To my mind and from the evidence before me, there’s no reasonable excuse for the District Attorney not to (have prosecuted for) third-degree assault. That should have been done, and it wasn’t done,” he scolded Jackson from the bench.
The judge had hoped to order Morrissey to press an assault charge against the deputy or to call for a special prosecutor who would do so, but the statute of limitations had run out. It was too late.
In cases involving killer cops, Morrissey relied on LaMar Sims as his go-to guy. The office has an uninterrupted record of clearing Denver’s uniformed officers for fatal beatings and shootings committed on-duty. The city doesn’t make public how many took place under Morrissey’s tenure, but there have been several high-profile cases.
Under Sims’ review, Morrissey justified sheriff’s deputies’ 2010 killing of Marvin Booker, a frail, homeless street preacher who presented no physical threat. Likewise, when Denver police killed unarmed 17-year-old Jessica Hernandez in 2015, Morrissey relied on Sims’ review to deem her shooting justified. Again last year, the office cleared deputies for fatally restraining Michael Marshall, a mentally ill homeless man who died choking on his own vomit because of the spit guard they put on his mouth.
Those are only a few of the officer-involved killings Sims justified in Denver. He also took his justifications on the road, testifying on behalf of the Cleveland police officer who gunned down and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice. Sims told the grand jury reviewing the case that killing a child holding a pellet gun was “reasonable.”
Policing is dangerous, and, understandably, prosecutors are bound to apply higher standards when deciding whether to criminally prosecute officers for using force on duty. Morrissey and his office aren’t alone statewide or nationally for tending to clear law enforcers in those cases, nor in their daily reliance on officers to provide testimony and win convictions.
“I trusted Mitch. I had complete trust in how he made his decisions and how he went about his business,” said Nick Rogers, president of Denver’s Police Protective Association. “In that important position, Mitch Morrissey has taken the job to another professional level, to a position where I respect everything he’s done.”
What set Morrissey apart from other big-city DAs was his record of never pressing charges in a high-profile use-of-force case, his unwillingness to discuss those decisions, and, most notably, his refusal to hear out the community’s frustrations.
“Under Morrissey, the police were always right,” said the Latino Forum’s Calderon. “We couldn’t go to our DA for justice. We didn’t get justice from him.”
In 2009, Alex Landau survived an assault by three Denver police officers whom Morrissey didn’t indict. The city paid out a $795,000 civil settlement – a clear indication that the officers were out of line. Landau sees Morrissey’s “collusion with police” as his most lasting legacy. “He has turned a blind eye to their criminal acts, abuses, their violence, and sold out the people in the process,” he said, rattling off a list of people beaten or killed by Denver officers or who died because of their negligence.
Paul Castaway and Michael Marshall in 2015. Ryan Ronquillo, Brandon Schreiber and Seryina Trujillo in 2014. Patricia Lucero and Philip White in 2012. Jamal Hunter in 2011, Mark Ashford, Marvin Booker and Irene Rodriguez in 2010. Michael DeHerrera, Arash Jahanian and James Watkins in 2009, John Heaney, Jared Lunn, James Moore and Juan Vasquez in 2008. Alberto Romero and Eric WInfield in 2007. Amy Shroff and Emlly Rice in 2006…
Landau co-founded the Denver Justice Project, a watchdog group that organized a petition drive to oust Morrissey from office in 2015. The more than 20,000 signatures it gathered fell short of the 53,925 required to qualify a recall measure for the ballot. Morrissey was galled by the attempt. City officials who asked not to be named described times during the recall effort when he blew up in meetings. Fist pounding, apparently, wasn’t infrequent in the DA’s office.
“Mitch is not perfect. I think Mitch, even before he became the elected (DA), had a reputation for having a bit of a temper. There’s no question about that,” Lamb said. Asked to elaborate on that reputation, he used the terms “hotheaded” and “raging anger machine.”
Lamb added that he never saw Morrissey abuse his power.
“There may be a perspective out there that decisions were made for the wrong reasons. I’m sensitive to that. But I watched Mitch make decisions in very, very closely-watched cases and not a single time did I get a sense that they were based on anything other than the facts and what he felt was right.”
Right and wrong
What felt right to Morrissey often felt bitterly wrong to the people and communities his decisions affected most. It didn’t help that, when challenged about his decisions, he’d tend to lean in and twist the knife.
Such was the case after Marvin Booker died in 2010 when five sheriff’s deputies piled on, choked and Tasered him in the city jail’s booking room. The incident was videotaped. The DA’s office reviewed the use of force on the 137-lb street preacher who posed no physical threat, and deemed it warranted. When Booker’s family cried foul, the DA’s office and other city officials publicly smeared them, saying the family was trying to profit from the case. City brass also cited Booker’s drug record and criminal record to blame Booker himself for deputies’ response.
A federal jury handed Booker’s family a $6 million civil award, ruling that officers used excessive force, destroyed evidence and lied about the killing. The case is the subject of a documentary, “Marvin Booker was Murdered,” premiering tonight.
“Mr. Morrissey was complicit in killing my brother by letting those deputies get away with murder,” said Booker’s brother, the Rev. Spencer Booker. “My brother’s blood drips from his hands and he will live with that for the rest of his life.”
There is perhaps no case in which Morrissey’s charging decisions seemed more unreasonable than that of Clarence Moses-EL, who was sentenced to 48 years for a 1987 rape he said he didn’t commit. The only evidence against him was the victim’s claim that his identity as her assailant came to her in a dream.
From prison, Moses-EL won two court orders allowing the evidence to be DNA tested, and raised $1,000 to pay for the lab work. But police tossed the evidence in a dumpster. The case stood out not only for authorities’ negligence, but also for the curious way Morrissey continued to handle it.
In 2006, he trumpeted his use of DNA to solve the 1993 cold case rapes of a mother and daughter at knifepoint. He identified their assailant as LC Jackson, who was the first man the victim in Moses-EL’s case said attacked her. Morrissey refused to acknowledge the connection and reopen Moses-EL’s case. He even defended the city’s destruction of DNA.
In a 2007 interview – my last directly with Morrissey – I asked if he could put himself in his Moses-EL’s shoes. No, he answered, saying he doesn’t have a criminal record and has never been to prison. “I’ve never raped anybody.”
He kept fighting Moses-EL’s innocence claim years later when Jackson confessed. Morrissey said that wasn’t new evidence. Though Jackson said DAs tried intimidating him from confessing in court, he did so anyway and, after years of legal wrangling, a judge finally lifted Moses-EL’s conviction in December 2015.
That was a month before Morrissey’s speech to the City Club – the one about the power of DNA and his tireless work championing the truth.
A wrongful conviction is, after all, also a cold case. Yet Morrissey forced an innocent man to linger in prison for an attack by a man he had proven was a serial rapist.
The DA could have backed off, yet kept dangling charges over Moses-EL’s head and insisted on retrying the case. One after the next, his witnesses – including the victim – tripped over their stories. Jurors acquitted Moses-EL, now 61, in November, and now he’s free of the nightmare that robbed nearly half his life. He declined comment about Morrissey, intent upon looking forward, not back.
Morrissey’s handling of the case belies the narrative he tells about himself as a crackerjack cracker of cold cases, a DNA hotshot, a let-the-chips-fall-where-they-may defender of truth and justice. It reveals him, instead, as a man for whom facts matter unless they get in the way of winning cases or shaping his legacy, in which case mythmaking serves him far better.
Morrissey’s predecessor, Bill Ritter, made a priority of holding town hall meetings, coffee klatches and private conversations throughout the city where people frequently yelled at him. They may not have liked his charging decisions, but they appreciated his ear and availability – a quality that helped Ritter win the governor’s office in 2006.
That same year, Morrissey started dismantling Ritter’s outreach programs in the DA’s office. When he met with members of the public, some noticed that he’d doodle or check his phone, seeming not to hear or care about their concerns. These tended to be the black and brown people of the city, or the poor, or the families of people whose addition of mental health struggles kept landing them in his sphere.
They weren’t the folks who attend luncheons to learn how criminal justice works.
In Morrissey’s third term, news events and shifts in public opinion didn’t look kindly on DAs with a habit of ignoring the communities most affected by their decisions.
Nearly all the victims of high-profile killings by Denver officers have been people of color. Racial and ethnic minorities are disproportionately represented in Denver’s jails, where they make up 60 percent of inmates compared to 45 percent of the city’s population. Many inmates come from the broader metro Denver region, whose racial makeup is only 27 percent non-white. Morrissey hasn’t made public annual reports on how his charging and sentencing practices have related to race. He always said his office was “color blind.”
“Mitch would make assertions that were patently false and then refuse to talk to people or satisfy our need for basic dialogue,” Calderon said.
McCann says she’ll reengage the DA’s office with the public to address racial inequities and consider ways of keeping more kids, addicts and the mentally ill out of the system. That, she said, “hasn’t necessarily been Mitch’s style.”
She also is joining the Colorado District Attorneys’ Council, a statewide group Morrissey quit years ago without explanation. Council past president George Brauchler, the 18th Judicial district attorney, said he sees most of his counterparts monthly, but has “never had a drink or even breakfast with Mitch.”
“I’ve got to be honest that it has much to do with his isolation,” Brauchler said. “Denver has a reputation of being isolated.”
Brauchler, like McCann, replaced an unpopular predecessor – Carol Chambers, around whom swirled persistent accusations of prosecutorial misconduct, including in death penalty cases. Brauchler was the first outsider to lead that office since 1968. In Denver, he noted, “Beth represents a similar break from a long string of DAs that have come up through the office.”
“If you’re looking for the biggest single positive to term limits, it’s the idea that you can break with the old ways of doing things,” he said. “Beth is new blood, and that’s the only way the people of Denver can put their mark on how things are done.”
At his farewell Friday, Morrissey blamed term limits for what he said was his premature departure. He had managed years ago to extend the limit for his seat from two to three terms. More recently, he fished around Denver City Hall for permission to try to stretch it to a fourth, but council members said no. He told coworkers and friends on Friday that, if he’d been allowed to run again, he was certain voters would have re-elected him.
Morrissey hasn’t said what he plans to do next. He offered scant cooperation with McCann in the two months between her win in November and her swearing-in Tuesday.
“We haven’t talked much. We met once. He hasn’t been, um, well, he hasn’t offered much help,” she said Sunday, choosing her words carefully.
“About Mitch, the transition, and Mitch himself, I think, uh, I think this has been hard for him.”
Photo courtesy of Denver DA’s office