21 October 2011

Former Western Slope DA Convicted Of Molesting DA Office Employees

The man who was the Republican District Attorney for the 7th Judicial District in Colorado (Delta, Gunnison, Hinsdale, Montrose, Ouray and San Miguel counties, basically the Western Slope to the south of Grand Junction and North of Silverton) when he was arrested in September 2010, Myrl Serra, has pleaded guilty to "criminal extortion and unlawful sexual contact involving three women," felonies punishable by up to twelve years in prison and requiring registration on the sex offender's registry. Sentencing is set for January 19, 2012.

The criminal extortion charges allege that he demanded "sexual favors from women in his office." The sexual contact charges were supported by preliminary hearing testimony in which "one of the women testified that Serra cornered her inside his office in April 2010, grabbed one of her breasts and forced her to touch his genitals."

The matter was handled surprisingly smoothly at the time of the arrest, with the office of Republican Attorney General John Suthers acting in coordination with Democratic Governor John Hickenlooper and stepping in to serve as a special prosecutor of the Republican elected official and an interim DA was appointed.

In Colorado, a District Attorney is elected on a partisan basis from the residents of each of the state's twenty-two judicial districts at the same time as other statewide elected official (in the even numbered years between President elections for four year terms) and reports only indirectly, via budget authorizations, to the county commissioners of the countries for whom he is the prosecutor.

This is not the first time in recent history that elected District Attorneys have attracted notice in recent memory in Colorado. Arapahoe's current Republican District Attorney Carol Chambers (who is also controversial for policy reasons related to her conduct in office and attracted national attention for linking Deputy DA compensation to conviction quotas), was found by the state supreme court to have committted an ethics violation. A recent Republican District Attorney John Newsome for Colorado Springs had a serious drinking problem and was found to have been embezzling petty amounts from his office. A District Attorney Colleen Truden in Aspen was recently recalled over scandals concerning her conduct in office.

This is not to say that appointing District Attorneys' statewide is necessarily a better approach.  Florida, for example, has state appointed rather than locally elected district attorneys and is not known for the good judgment of its prosecutors. 

Indeed, there is circumstantial evidence to suggest that the decentralized nature of the criminal justice bureaucracy in the United States is an important part of the unwritten constitution in the United States that reduces abuses by law enforcement relative to states where the process is more centralized, makes it harder for the entire criminal justice system to be corrupted by organized crime, and limits the need for the legal mandate to prosecute all known crimes that is found in many civil law countries. 

Perhaps the best compromise would be to make the District Attorney an appointed official who reports to local government elected officials, just as municipal law enforcement officers do in the United States.  The lack of accountability to anyone else is part of what makes the position of an elected District Attorney prone to abuse and makes abuses by someone in this position a monumental task to correct in most cases.  (Near total judicial immunity from civil liability for prosecutors further exacerbates this issue.)

1 comment:

Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

The DA in question was disbarred early this week.