Mitch Morrissey, term-limited as Denver DA in 2017, considers running again

The career prosecutor paid for a phone survey of voters and says he's being encouraged to run in a primary against Beth McCann

Former three-term Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey barely spoke to his successor, Beth McCann, before she took over for him in 2017, McCann has said. Now, he's considering challenging her in 2020. (Photo via Jeffrey Beall/Creative Commons)
Former three-term Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey barely spoke to his successor, Beth McCann, before she took over for him in 2017, McCann has said. Now, he's considering challenging her in 2020. (Photo via Jeffrey Beall/Creative Commons)

Former three-term Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey may run for the job again next year.

Morrissey confirmed his consideration of a re-election bid during a phone call Tuesday. He said he paid for a recent phone survey of voters and that he’s being pressured to challenge his successor, fellow Democrat Beth McCann, in 2020. He declined to be more specific about who has asked him to run again. 

I’ve been asked to do it by people. Numerous people,” Morrissey said. “When people ask you, yeah, you think about it.”

The 62-year-old served as Denver DA for three terms from 2005 to 2017, when he was term-limited out of office. Colorado law allows elected constitutional officials, including district attorneys, to run for office again after a four-year waiting period, the secretary of state said. The same rule applies to the governor, attorney general, secretary of state, and state senators and representatives.

Morrissey left office in January of 2017 and, were he to run in Denver next year and win, he’d be taking office in January of 2021 — just meeting the four-year requirement.

During a phone call with The Independent, Morrissey initially said he did not know who commissioned the poll, which asked voters a variety of questions about Colorado politics, including some about the perceptions of and contrasts between Morrissey and McCann.

“I’m not sure exactly,” he said, later acknowledging, “I paid for the poll, yes,” and adding that such polls “can give you information about things — where you stand, what your reputation is, name recognition.”

He said he didn’t know “off the top of my head” whom he paid to conduct the poll. 

Morrissey was a controversial figure within the criminal prosecution community during his time in office, largely because he withdrew Denver from the Colorado District Attorneys’ Council, a professional association and resource network for district attorneys in the state. 

“I think that isolated the Denver office some, in a way that was not helpful to the prosecution community in Colorado,” said Stan Garnett, the former longtime Boulder DA. George Brauchler, the DA for Colorado’s 18th Judicial District, has also used the term “isolated” to describe the office Morrissey led.

Denver rejoined the Council shortly after McCann took office.

Morrissey was known for being fiercely protective of his own staff and for wielding his authority within the office in a way McCann does not. His identity is steeped in that office; a career prosecutor, he worked there for three decades.

Morrissey championed the use of DNA to solve crimes, especially cold cases. After leaving office, Morrissey co-founded a start-up forensic company called United Data Connect. He said the company has a small staff, but he is the only person listed on United Data Connect’s “our team” page. The company was formed to solve rape and murder cases, among other forensic research projects, Morrissey said.

“He always cared about the victims and the victims’ families, probably just as much or more than anybody I worked with,” former Denver prosecutor David Lamb told The Independent in 2017.

He was also known for being loyal to the broader Denver law enforcement community, and in 12 years did not bring charges against any Denver officer who shot someone while on duty. His office said the controversial 2010 killing of a homeless, black man named Marvin Booker by sheriff’s deputies was justified. The Denver police killing of an unarmed 17-year-old named Jessica Hernandez four years ago was also justified, his office found.

“Under Morrissey, the police were always right,” Lisa Calderón, who ran for Denver mayor this year and now is chief of staff for Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca, told The Independent in 2017. “We couldn’t go to our DA for justice. We didn’t get justice from him.”

Garnett described him as a relatively conservative Democrat.

“He was resistant to reform efforts coming from the legislature, in the area of juvenile reform and mandatory sentencing reform,” he said.

Elisabeth Epps, a Denver lawyer and organizer for progressive criminal justice policy who used to live just blocks from Morrissey near Alamo Placita Park, helped lead an unsuccessful recall effort against him in 2015. A group she co-directs called the Denver Justice Project attempted to oust him from office because, she said, Morrissey was a “detriment to public safety.”

Some 20,000 petition signers agreed, but that total was well short of what the Denver Justice Project needed.

“While we were not able to recall him then,” Epps said, “we working to end mass incarceration were relieved to see him finally leave office.” 

She added, “We wish him well in retirement and will do what it takes to ensure that retirement continues.”

Reached by phone Tuesday, McCann, a former state representative and Denver’s first woman DA, said she was aware of Morrissey’s phone poll, but declined to comment further.

As Morrissey was nearing the end of his third term and McCann was preparing to take over, he barely spoke to her, McCann said at the time.

“We haven’t talked much,” she said just before taking office. “We met once. He hasn’t been, um, well, he hasn’t offered much help.”