DA Kelly, former DA Willett take part in candidate forum

Photo by Luke Lyons Republican and current 12th Judicial District Attorney Anne Kelly and Democrat Bob Willett shake hands after the Alamosa Chamber of Commerce and Valley Courier Candidates Forum held on Oct. 11, at Society Hall in Alamosa.

ALAMOSA — District Attorney for the San Luis Valley Anne Kelly and her opponent, former SLV District Attorney Bob Willett, took the stage at Society Hall on Tuesday night, Oct. 11, in the last segment of a candidates’ forum. The event, sponsored by the Valley Courier and the Alamosa Chamber of Commerce, was moderated by Valley Courier Publisher Keith R. Cerny.

The two candidates on the ballot in November for the office of district attorney are in a high-stakes race that holds great interest to valley residents as evidenced by the number of attendees in Society Hall and the 600 people who followed the event live on Facebook.

Throughout the forum, both candidates made mention of the damage committed during former District Attorney Alonzo Payne’s tenure to the victims of crime in the Valley and the justice system of the SLV, at large.

Following their introductory remarks, the candidates were presented with a series of questions, submitted ahead of time by members of the public.

First up, candidates were asked what they viewed as the biggest challenge and what they would do to overcome it.

Kelly cited the lack of trust victims have in the office, which she alleged was lost under both Payne and Willett.

“You can hear it in the victims’ voices,” she said.

Trust, she said, is restored by “transparency, availability and contact.” 

“I’m going to be available to every single one of you who wants to come in and talk to me about what’s going on,” she said. “Every single law enforcement officer who wants to talk to me about a case, I will talk to them about a case.”

Willett challenged Kelly’s allegations, citing law enforcement trusted him enough to try a cold case in Denver from 2014 that two other district attorneys didn’t prosecute. He also cited law enforcement’s trust in Willett during the Psycho Baroz investigation and prosecution.

“Law enforcement trusted me enough for me to go down and examine a burn pit in Conejos County and help out in that investigation,” he said.

He coordinated with law enforcement around the state as well as federal agencies, including coordination with ATF taking the suspect into custody in New Mexico.

“I agree the problem is trust, but I inspired trust when I was in office,” Willett said. “I was the DA here in 2020 and we filed 13 homicides. Law enforcement trusted me enough to file those cases and get them on the road to prosecution to get justice for the victims of those crimes.”

Candidates talk about ensuring victims’ protection and services, diversion

When asked how the candidates will ensure victims of violent crime will receive the protection and services they need, Kelly said “that’s what I’ve done my entire career.”

She doesn’t just prosecute cases, she said, she makes changes if needed to better serve victims, adding that she started a nationally recognized special domestic violence team in Boulder and her office is suited to meet victims’ needs.

“We know how to do it. It’s just a matter of making sure the community knows that we know how to do it and trusts us,” she said.

Willett agreed.

“The victim advocates in the office know how to do it because they knew how to do it in Krista Newmyer Olson’s and my administration,” he said. “We need to reach out to victims early and often and take their case seriously and prosecute it based upon the law, the facts of the case and the history of the offender.”

He listed other “tools in the toolbox”, including charging abusers with a previous record as “habitual offenders”, which increases sentencing.  He also cited his current work in the 4th Judicial district, “probably the busiest in the state”, where he deals with victims just as he did in the valley: “with respect, courtesy, effective communication and in the manner in which they should be treated.”

When asked about a prosecutor’s discretion and what factors are considered in charging a defendant and recommending sentencing, Willett said, “you look at the age of the offender, the severity of the crime and what the victim wants. You have to look at the whole picture, at how provable the case is.

“Do you have the evidence to prove the allegations, which requires law enforcement to follow up and submit the investigation to the office. Those are all the things I would consider in the outcome of the case.”

Kelly said, “This valley needs to see prosecutors willing to go after dangerous offenders, so I look at how much damage has this offender done in the community.” But she also looks at cases in “a nuanced way” and, based on what she sees, considers the “myriad of tools she can use”, including the diversion program.

Diversion programs are intervention strategies that seek to offer individuals who are first-time offenders accused of low-level crimes an opportunity to avoid prosecution or sentencing that could have a negative impact on their future by taking part in treatment, education, community service or other pro-social activities.

Both candidates agree on the effectiveness of diversion programs and are strong supporters.

Kelly, and Willett discuss immigrant cases

When asked how they would handle cases involving immigrants, Willett said he handles those cases no differently than any other case where someone has committed a crime, and immigration status is not “up to him.”

He also cited instances where he has signed a “U visa” which, by law, allows victims of mental or physical abuse to remain legally in the US as long as they assist in the prosecution of the crime.

“People shouldn’t be revictimized by being deported for calling law enforcement when they were in a dire emergency,” Willett said.

Kelly spoke of her “deep love for immigrants in this country” and spoke of barriers for immigrants in the justice system, such as language (Kelly is fluent in Spanish) that prevents immigrants from understanding what is going on and asking questions. She also spoke of the “undercurrent of rumors” often found in immigrant communities that cause unnecessary confusion and fear.

Kelly addresses loyalty in her office, Willett speaks on dismissed charges

The final two questions were addressed to the candidates specifically.

Kelly was asked about an alleged statement that she has “a lot of attorneys that are loyal to (her) and how can we trust these people if they are loyal to (her) and not to the valley itself?”

“Everyone that has come down, everyone that’s reached out to me to ask me how they can help because of the messaging I’ve sent out that the valley is in crisis,” Kelly said. “They’re not loyal to me, they’re loyal to this place.”

Willett was asked “the exact condition of the charges filed (against him) by DA Payne”, referencing charges of embezzlement filed by Willett two days after it became apparent a recall election was in his future. Prior to that, Willett had announced his intention to run for DA.

Willett said the best way to answer the question is for people to read the Colorado Supreme Court decision regarding the disciplinary action taken against Payne, resulting in his disbarment.

“The last paragraph states he weaponized the criminal justice system against me in a meritless allegation,” he said. “And it was a meritless allegation.  I was factually innocent of that charge and an outside prosecutor saw that and dismissed the case.”

In closing, Willet said he’s not a politician, he’s a prosecutor and a trial attorney.

He knows the district, knows all the law enforcement officers and knows how to help people. He cited things he had done as DA during the pandemic with trials suspended and few remaining attorneys, including having part-time attorneys live with him.

He said he is looking forward to returning justice in the valley.

Kelly said running for office has been challenging as she’s not comfortable with the politics, but she hopes to have the support of every law enforcement agency in the valley.  

She has moved her “entire life” to the valley out of “deep commitment” to a system that’s in crisis.

 “Let’s not go backwards,” she said. “It’s time for a change.”