Ask the candidates for 18th Judicial District Attorney what the race boils down to, and both will offer a single word: experience. But ask each candidate what experience — and just how much of it …
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Colorado Community Media will bring you Q&As with candidates for U.S. Senate, U.S. House, state Legislature, county commissioner and more in this week's print edition and on this website.
Ask the candidates for 18th Judicial District Attorney what the race boils down to, and both will offer a single word: experience.
But ask each candidate what experience — and just how much of it — their opponent brings to the table, and they give starkly different answers.
John Kellner, a Republican from Greenwood Village, says he brings an expertise in criminal prosecution that his opponent, Amy Padden, simply can’t offer. That’s important for an elected official who will oversee an office filled with criminal prosecutors, he said.
Padden, a Democrat from Aurora, is quick with her counter. Not only is she the more experienced candidate, she said, but she has a broader and more diverse background in the justice system than her opponent, having worked at all three levels of government.
Kellner served in prosecutorial roles when on active duty in the Marine Corps and deployed to Afghanistan while serving as a special assistant U.S. attorney for the Southern District of California.
Later, Kellner worked as a prosecutor in Colorado judicial districts, specializing in cold cases and homicides. He currently works for the 18th Judicial District and helped found the district’s cold case unit.
Padden has been an attorney for nearly 26 years, starting in private practice. She went on to work as a prosecutor at the Colorado Attorney General’s Office, the U.S. Attorney’s Office and currently works in the 11th Judicial District.
Padden said her resume boasts expertise prosecuting white-collar crimes, as well as assisting in cases involving counterterrorism and national security. She worked on both the Boston Marathon bombing and the Oklahoma City bombing cases.
They are vying to succeed term-limited George Brauchler, a Republican who has held the post for eight years.
Experience will be crucial, candidates and their supporters say, as the contest’s winner will helm the state’s most populous judicial district — encompassing Arapahoe, Douglas, Elbert and Lincoln counties — and one weathering cases of intense community interest and the local playout of a national reckoning on racism.
On alert for systemic racism
Criminal justice reform emerged as a key issue this year as police killings of Black people spurred protests and demonstrations across the nation. Both candidates said they would take up an external audit of prosecutorial data if elected, to seek out any implicit bias in the local system.
Kellner said he would go beyond that.
The district already publishes data each quarter about who is sent to prison, he said, such as case information, charges and other demographics. He wants to make more than prison statistics readily available, like those for problem-solving courts or diversion programs.
Only publishing prison information gives the appearance that is all the system does, he said, when in reality cases are resolved in numerous ways.
“I want to publish information about nearly every kind of case,” he said. “We need to put more information out there and then put ourselves out there to be accountable.”
He would also hold town halls and run community advisory boards in an effort to give community members a chance to weigh in on how justice is administered in their district, Kellner said.
“I think this is how we have a role as district attorneys to influence this. No. 1, we need to have a hard look at ourself,” Kellner said.
He has said he will place an emphasis on treatment courts, veterans courts and problem solving courts, also partnering with judges and public defenders to provide people with mental health and drug treatment.
Padden pointed to a number of issues she would take up in an effort to address systemic racism, including implicit bias training within the district and offering training to law enforcement agencies.
“This is really going to take a multifaceted approach and obviously can’t be done with the district attorney alone,” she said.
There are other aspects of the system she would like to revisit, she said, like the cash bond system, which she said marginalizes people of color and those in poverty.
She also suggested examining no-knock warrants and doing away with citizen’s arrests, noting the fatal outcome in the Ahmaud Arbery case from Georgia. Arbery, a Black man, died after being chased and confronted by armed white men who suspected him of burglary.
Padden said she has the leadership to “repair these broken relationships that we’ve been seeing,” and while she would not use the word crisis to describe the community’s relationship with law enforcement, she said “I think we’re pretty close to that.”
“I feel that the relationship between law enforcement and our communities, particularly Aurora, it’s pretty damaged right now,” she said.
Padden added “we have to acknowledge that our Black and brown communities” have been disadvantaged by the justice system.
Violence and vandalism that followed some protests also drew scrutiny nationally, as did the response from local elected leaders to those incidents.
Both Padden and Kellner said they will not comment on specific cases, but when asked about prosecuting unlawfulness at demonstrations, both also said they would charge unlawful behavior.
“I don’t condone looting. I will prosecute people who loot, and I will prosecute cases where property is destroyed,” Padden said. “We have to keep our community safe. We cannot have lawlessness.”
Padden also said there is a balance to respecting a person’s right to peacefully protest, and it’s within a district attorney’s discretion to bring charges in cases. She promised to help the community understand any decision she made regarding charges.
Kellner said anyone who commits a crime, particularly when “doing it adjacent to the protest movement” should be held accountable.
“I think what is tragic about the hijacking that is happening with some of the protests is people are out there making their voices heard,” Kellner said. “When people hijack those protests and, for instance, in Aurora shatter windows or commit vandalism, they are taking away, I think, from the underlying message.”
Kellner said, “anybody who breaks the law needs to be held accountable,” regardless of whether they are a police officer or a private citizen, and he condemned allowing any racist ideology driving decision making in cases.
Status quo or change?
Dick Wadhams, a political strategist and former chair of the Colorado Republican Party, predicts instances of vandalism and property destruction that followed local police brutality protests will be a defining issue in this election.
“I just don’t think we can allow people just to decide to destroy public buildings, tear down statues, shut off major highways like 225,” he said.
Wadhams said there needs to be a clear distinction drawn by a district attorney between a peaceful protest and unlawful behavior.
“Let me stress that I am not talking about peaceful protests. Peaceful protests are absolutely critical to our overall political process,” he said.
He said the next district attorney needs to be a strong prosecutor. It’s important, he said, because the 18th Judicial District affects “the metropolitan area.” Wadhams, a Jefferson County resident, voiced support for Kellner because of his prosecutorial record.
“If we have a prosecutor who wants to coddle people who destroy public and private property, these problems will get worse, and I think that’s the choice here in that district,” Wadhams said.
Earlier this month, Brauchler announced charges against four people for alleged unlawful acts during demonstrations in Aurora, including inciting riots, theft and obstructing a highway — a move quickly condemned by groups that helped organize the demonstrations.
“George Brauchler, of course, has been the very symbol of a tough prosecutor during his eight years in office,” Wadhams said. “I think that’s the model that we need to continue to have.”
Continuing the status quo is exactly what Dr. Dana Torpey-Newman, chair of the Douglas County Democrats, is afraid of.
The community needs a district attorney who understands mental health and systemic racism, she said, and the complexities of the nation’s reckoning on its history with racism.
Most importantly, she wants a district attorney who can bring criminal justice reform. Torpey-Newman believes Padden is ready to bring change to the state’s largest judicial district, shifting the system from a reactionary one to a proactive one, and bringing down recidivism rates.
Torpey-Newman said that in her home county, “the Douglas County model is, `Get them bad guys,’” rather than placing an emphasis on robust diversion programs or preventing crime.
“I just don’t think John Kellner understands these issues,” she said.
She also called criticism of Padden’s experience “a dog whistle for sexism.”
“I don’t actually think that either of them lacks experience, but I think that that line is meant as a dog whistle to say, women don’t know anything about this,” she said.
The next district attorney could inherit cases of intense public interest, including the STEM School Highlands Ranch shooting case, or what Brauchler has called the “biggest crime in the history of Douglas County.”
John Castillo, whose son, Kendrick, died while protecting his classmates in the May 2019 shooting at STEM School, said the case is currently in “a holding pattern.”
Alec McKinney pleaded guilty in the case and was sentenced to life in prison in July. But his co-defendant, Devon Erickson, was set to face trial in September until the trial dates were vacated, meaning the case may not wrap up until next year under a new district attorney.
The Castillos requested Brauchler be allowed to finish the case if it remains open after he leaves office, but there’s no guarantee that will happen, Castillo said.
“We’ve maintained a level of comfort with Mr. Brauchler and to reestablish that, it’s horrifying, to say the least, for surviving families,” Castillo said.
When it comes to inheriting cases of high-public interest, both candidates said they are ready to take on whatever cases await them and whatever future cases arise.
“I’m absolutely ready for these types of cases. I’m an expert in crisis management,” Padden said, adding she helped prosecutors prepare for cross-examination and prepared witnesses to be interviewed by defense attorneys in the Boston Marathon bombing case . “I am definitely prepared to deal with whatever comes our way.”
Kellner pointed to his work in the area of cold cases, including a 1996 "no body" cold case where he served on team that helped secure a homicide conviction despite the victim's body never being found. He has prosecuted more than a dozen murder trials in Colorado, Kellner said.
“I think my record speaks for itself in that regard,” Kellner said. “This is the sort of work that I do on a regular basis.”
The candidates also spoke about their roles in preventing violence in schools.
Kellner said he was on a team of prosecutors that reviewed the Arapahoe High School shooting, which left 17-year-old Claire Davis dead.
“I saw really for the first time up close and personal the somewhat flawed system we have for threat assessment,” Kellner said.
The case taught him how many warning signs can be missed before an incident of school violence, he said.
Kellner would strive to engrain the district attorney into local school districts’ threat-assessment processes. Judicial districts can be uniquely positioned to aid threat assessment because they work with so many law enforcement agencies and jurisdictions, he said.
“I see the district attorney as having a proactive role in bringing all that information together to make sure nothing falls through the cracks,” he said.
Padden vowed a proactive approach to keeping schools safe if elected.
“There’s a lot the district attorney can do to help that happen,” she said.
Padden noted her past experience working with the Gang Resistance Education and Training (G.R.E.A.T.) program, where she volunteered as a federal prosecutor talking to fifth- and sixth-graders about personal safety. The program is shown to reduce gang affiliation, she said.
“I’m also just going to work closely with the local school districts and local elected officials,” she said.
Padden said the needs of schools in one part of the district might look different than others, offering up the recent debate over school resource officers as an example. Schools in Aurora might be more open to removing officers, she said, while schools in Douglas County are largely supportive of the SRO program.
“This is not going to be a one size fits all, this has to be an issue that is decided locally,” Padden said. “We have to make sure that we are responsive to all these counties’ needs.”
Christine Sweetland, a member of Centennial City Council, has endorsed Padden for her platform on reform. Sweetland’s children attended Arapahoe High School, where Davis was killed by a classmate, who then killed himself, in 2013.
“While my kids weren’t there during the school shooting, having those school resource officers there made a huge difference and this is a district that supports that, but Amy understands there are nuances to that,” she said. “She’s going to listen to everybody.”
Sweetland, who said she was speaking on behalf of herself and not the city, said Padden would bring a moderate and calm voice to cases like school violence.
After more than a year of attending court hearings and observing the system, Castillo has thrown his support behind Kellner.
“I think that, you know, his experience is what’s guiding me toward him being the proper candidate for this,” Castillo said. “I think we need to have somebody who’s prosecuted especially felony and murder convictions.”
A sticking point for Castillo has been comments Padden made regarding direct filing — where under certain criteria a juvenile can be charged in adult court.
In a video posted to her Facebook page called “Community Conversations,” Padden said, “I think it’s wrong to charge kids as adults,” before expanding to discuss a juvenile’s brain development and negative effects of sending juveniles to adult facilities, also adding “it’s ruining kids’ lives.”
“It’s just mind blowing that we would have a district attorney that would make such a statement,” he said. “We live in a time of acts of domestic terror in school settings.”
Padden said she does not have a blanket opposition to direct filing. It’s clear that direct filing is overused, she said, but there are times where she considers it appropriate.
“There are some cases that are so heinous that the individual needs to be removed from society,” she said.
Padden said she’s ready for any case — she has tried six this year — but she plans to let other prosecutors cut their teeth and make a name for themselves, too.
“In a district this size, I think the district attorney should be running the office and interacting with the community,” she said.
Kellner said the job is far from managerial, that the community expects their district attorney to be “the lead prosecutor for that community,” and he promised to personally handle significant cases.
“You are the person who is accountable,” he said.
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