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.
“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.