The 6th Judicial District Attorney’s Office has been disqualified from further prosecuting a Pagosa Springs man accused of child sex assault after District Attorney Christian Champagne broke a policy that said he was not allowed to be involved in or comment on the case.
Rodney Keller, 54, was arrested in June 2018 for alleged sex assault on a child, and since, two trials in October 2019 and August 2020 resulted in mistrials after a jury could not unanimously decide whether to convict.
In September 2018, Keller’s defense attorneys filed a motion to disqualify the 6th Judicial District Attorney’s Office after it came to light Champagne had represented Keller as a public defender in an older case in 2008.
In the 2008 case, court records show Champagne was Keller’s public defender for “approximately four weeks.” Ultimately, Keller pleaded guilty to the charge, sex assault on a child.
Champagne apparently did not remember Keller, court records show, but as soon as he became aware of the situation, he vowed to not be involved in the case, and the court denied the motion to disqualify his office from prosecuting the case.
The 2008 case was used as evidence in Keller’s most-recent case.
After Keller’s mistrial in August, his second one, it came to light Champagne had a conversation about the trial with one of the prosecutors on the case. And, he later testified in court he had a few “morale-building” conversations with attorneys.
Then, Keller’s defense attorneys – Heather Little and Kenneth Pace – took further issue with Champagne for making comments about the case to The Durango Herald as part of two separate articles published after the August mistrial.
“We believe in the righteousness of this case, and although we wish the jury had reached a final verdict, I am inspired by the strength and courage of the victim and proud of the effort that we put forth in trying to get justice on her behalf,” Champagne was quoted as saying.
Champagne said Wednesday he was unable to comment.
Little also declined to comment Wednesday.
At a court hearing this week, Champagne testified his comments to the Herald were broad in nature, and that while he had brief conversations about the mistrials, no specifics were discussed nor was he consulted on matters in the case.
“I don’t consult with the attorneys involved in the case,” he said. “All of those tasks and duties are assigned elsewhere. ... I’m not involved.”
Prosecution of the Keller case has been led by Assistant District Attorney David Ottman and Deputy District Attorney-Appellate Sean Murray.
Ottman, testifying, said he asked Champagne to not make public comments to the media, but ultimately he does not have supervisory authority.
“I would have rather Mr. Champagne had not made those comments,” Ottman said. “It’s a tricky spot.”
District Judge Todd Norvell, overseeing the case, ruled Wednesday to disqualify the District Attorney’s Office from further prosecuting the case, which was set to go to trial for a third time in November.
In his order, Norvell wrote that while Champagne testified he does not remember any confidential information from Keller’s 2008 case, there remains a risk of disclosures. A “screening policy” to keep Champagne removed from the case “was not strictly followed,” the judge wrote.
“Mr. Champagne’s public statements appear on their face in at least some respects to contradict his assurances that he has been properly screened from involvement in this case,” Norvell wrote.
Norvell said Keller is “unlikely” to receive a fair trial from the 6th Judicial District Attorney’s Office.
“The facts of this case, including public statements of Mr. Champagne related to his former client’s current case, certainly affect the appearance of fairness and public trust and confidence in the criminal justice system,” Norvell wrote.
The case has now been transferred to the 7th Judicial District Attorney’s Office in Montrose. Calls to the office were not returned, so it is unclear if the office intends to retry the case.
According to authorities, Keller sexually assaulted a child at a former girlfriend’s friend’s house in early June 2018 in Bayfield. When questioned by authorities, he denied the allegations. Keller was arrested June 20, 2018.
Keller was a registered sex offender, according to authorities. He was previously arrested in 2008 after being recognized at the Albertsons parking lot in Durango after appearing on “America’s Most Wanted” for sexual assault on a child in 2008, a charge to which he pleaded guilty.