During his first seven months in office, District Attorney Christian Champagne has made it a priority to take more cases to trial – making good on a campaign promise to give the community a greater role in the judicial process.
“We’ve made a concentrated effort to do more trial work, and it’s really showing in the numbers,” Champagne said.
During the last four months, May 1 through Aug. 31, the 6th Judicial District Attorney’s Office has tried 17 cases, obtaining guilty verdicts in 15 cases and not guilty verdicts in two cases. (Some of the “guilty” cases included mixed rulings, meaning jurors found defendants guilty on some charges but not all charges.) By comparison, the previous administration, overseen by former District Attorney Todd Risberg, took five cases to trial during the same time period in 2016.
“Doing more trial work really puts justice in the hands of the community,” Champagne said. “That was really important for me when I talked to the community as a candidate – that we have more direct interaction with our community and get their feedback so we can improve what we do and how we work for our community.”
Champagne, a Democrat, was elected in November to a four-year term. He didn’t officially take office until mid-January. It took him a couple of months to implement changes, including setting more cases for trial, he said. The spike in trials materialized in May, he said.
Criminal trials give jurors an up-close view of the judicial process, including how police, lawyers and judges operate, Champagne said. After hearing all the facts, jurors decide what justice should look like for any given case.
The entire process improves the justice system, he said. Police learn to build stronger cases, lawyers learn to become better advocates for victims or defendants and the community becomes more connected and informed about the judicial process, he said. It also improves overall transparency of the judicial system, he said.
“It really does put justice in the hands of the community members and allows them to tell us what we’re doing well and what we’re not,” Champagne said. “... Transparency is really critical behind this.”
The District Attorney’s Office offers similar plea agreements as when Risberg was in office, but it’s less likely to offer favorable plea agreements immediately before the start of trials, he said.
Champagne’s office is not focused on particular crimes to take to trial; rather, the cases are a range, including drug cases, motor vehicle theft, felony menacing, vehicular assault, fraud, resisting arrest, stalking, domestic violence and others.
“We don’t ever bring cases into the criminal justice system that we don’t think we can prove beyond a reasonable doubt,” Champagne said.
About two-thirds of the 17 trial cases were adjudicated in county court, meaning they were lower-level crimes, and about a third were tried in district court, meaning they were felony-level crimes.
Jury trials can be time-consuming. For that reason, the District Attorney’s Office shifted a full-time position away from its investigation unit and added a full-time attorney to its county court division.
Justin Bogan, head of the public defender’s office in Durango, said he has not paid attention to the District Attorney’s Office’s trial numbers since Champagne took charge. Public defenders must evaluate the risks of trial versus a potential resolution through a plea agreement. They must then consult with clients to let them make the ultimate decision, he said.
If there is an increase in cases going to trial, it’s not necessarily a “good thing” for the community, Bogan said. In the last eight months, juries have acquitted some defendants of the most serious charges and others of all the charges, he said. Unnecessary trials increase workload for the courts and put victims, witnesses and clients through a process that could have been avoided, he said.
Retired public defense lawyer Stephen Wells said he doesn’t see anything unusual with Champagne’s decision to try more cases. It’s important to maintain a balance between trying too few cases and taking too many cases to trial, he said. If anything, the pendulum swung pretty far in the direction of trying too few cases, he said.
“There are prosecutors who have that particular bent,” Wells said.
Wells, who retired this year after practicing criminal law for 33 years, said there is heightened contention between prosecutors and defense lawyers right now in Durango. That might be because there are so many criminal defense lawyers who are prepared to take cases to trial on behalf of their clients, he said.
Champagne said taking more cases to trial is just one of the things his office is doing. He is also building diversion and restorative justice programs.
Restorative justice aims to resolve cases outside the courtroom. Offenders may meet with victims, offer an apology, pay to repair any damage caused and do something that shows goodwill on the part of the offender. Victims have a chance to confront the offender, explain how the crime impacted them and be involved in shaping an appropriate punishment.
Diversion programs also aim to keep low-level criminal cases out of the courtroom. Defendants agree to participate in counseling, therapy, anger-management or domestic-violence classes. If they successfully complete the requirements, they are spared a criminal conviction.
“It’s not just this push to do more trial work,” Champagne said of his tenure.
Doing more trial work has nothing to do with being harsher or wanting to speed up the judicial process, he said.
“What we are trying to say, though, is we’re willing to go to trial, and we’re not scared of the trial process,” he said. “And whatever the outcome is, is fine. We have to trust that the process works.”