Denver's DA declines more than 70 percent of sex assault cases and 36 percent of felony cases

Denver DA declines 71 percent sex assault cases

DENVER - The Denver District Attorney's office declines to prosecute 36 percent of all felonies and 71 percent of all felony sex assaults that Denver police bring to prosecutors, the CALL7 Investigators found.

Those rates are substantially higher than the refusal rates of seven other Front Range judicial districts and several similar jurisdictions around the United States that the CALL7 Investigators surveyed.

"It says to the victim, we don't give a damn," said Kris Miccio, a former New York City prosecutor and Legal Director of the Center For Battered Women's Legal Services.  "I know I'm using harsh language, but this is a harsh situation." Miccio has handled sexual assault cases and currently is a professor of law at University of Denver Sturm College of Law.

Denver DA Mitch Morrissey said statistics and comparisons to other jurisdictions are not useful in assessing prosecution.

"We don't do it based on statistics," he said. "It's on a case-by-case basis."

But Michelle, whose name we are withholding because she says she was sexually assaulted, said Denver did little to bring her alleged rapists to justice.

"I spoke to a detective once, and was pretty much told there wasn't much that could be done," she said. "No one as far as anyone I know contacted any of the witnesses that I had, gathered any of the evidence, reviewed it. I really didn't have much contact with Denver at all."

Michelle, then a Garfield County resident, was 16 years old and returning from spring break when weather forced the teens to spend a night in a Denver hotel.

"One of the boys bought alcohol," she said. "We drank and I'd never dranken before." 

Then, she says, two of the boys attacked her.

"I was crying, and at one point, one of them said maybe we should stop -- 'I feel like we're raping her,'" she said. "And the other guy, he just responded 'no, she's just a virgin so she's emotional. She'll be fine.'"

When she returned home, she went to Garfield County law enforcement and they transferred the case to Denver where the alleged assault happened. But Michelle said Denver appeared to do little with the case, and the DA's office told her they couldn't prosecute.

"That was devastating for me," she said.

Miccio said the number of cases declined by Morrissey's office is not acceptable.

"It's unconscionable to me that this exists in this county," she said. "It is unconscionable that in 2013 I'm having this discussion with you."

But Morrissey, who would not discuss specific cases, said he has to have a reasonable likelihood of conviction before filing a case.

"We review the cases with a standard of a reasonable likelihood of conviction," Morrissey said. "There are very senior or chief deputies that do that."

The CALL7 Investigators found that seven other Front Range judicial districts have much higher rates of prosecution than Morrissey's office.

For overall felonies, the 19th Judicial District, in Weld County, refused the least at 2 percent and the 18th, including Arapahoe and Douglas counties, refused the most with 11.5 percent. Both are still well below Denver's 36 percent overall felony refusal rate. The statistics for all jurisdictions are an average over at least three years.

Only Denver and Jefferson counties could break felony sex assault data out of the overall felonies. That comparison shows Jefferson County declined 29 percent of sex assaults while Denver declined 71 percent.

Other district attorneys around the country have prosecution rates that are higher than Denver but lower than most other Colorado judicial districts. Prosecutors in King County, which includes Seattle, reject 47.5 percent of sex assaults and 21.4 percent of overall felonies. In Hennepin County, which includes Minneapolis, prosecutors reject 31.4 percent of all felonies brought by police and 57.6 percent of sex assaults.

Jefferson County District Attorney Pete Weir declined to talk about Denver's statistics because he didn't know the Denver DA's processes. He said if his office had a high rate of case refusals he would want to determine why that is happening.

"We always have to realize that no matter how well we're doing a job, there's always room for improvement," he said.

Morrissey said his office is doing the right thing in analyzing cases.

"We are not going to lower the ethical standards of this office because you have some statistics that I haven't seen, haven't been able to analyze and determine if someone is using a different standard, but we're not going to change that standard," he said.

Morrissey said his office has a process where if a sex assault case is declined, another prosecutor must review the case and sign off on it. Weir says he put together a committee of prosecutors, police and even victims' advocates to review difficult cases.

Michelle said she is upset that her case wasn't pursued. After CALL7 Investigators started asking questions, police reopened the investigation.

"Someone shouldn't be set back by something so serious in their life just because of where it happened," Michelle said. "It's not fair for the victims, and then they go and try to get something done and report it, and Denver's not doing the best job there."

For five months, CALL7 Investigator Keli Rabon tried to talk to Morrissey about his refusal rates, but his office said he would not go on camera.

So we found him in the public area of the Webb building, where he has offices. He refused to discuss his statistics, saying he was concerned his words would be edited inaccurately.

"Happy to talk to you off camera and answer any questions that you have," he told Rabon. "I'll make a decision then if I'll go on a camera or not."

But when CALL7 Investigators arrived for the off-camera session, Morrissey's spokeswoman Lynn Kimbrough had set up a camera to video tape the discussion.

It's "so we can document the conversation," she said.

"So why can't we document the conversation?" Rabon asked.

"Do you want to have this conversation or not?" Morrissey said.

"Well, I just want to be on the same page," Rabon said.

"We're on the same page," he said. "We're off camera, you're on camera. If you don't want to do this way, I have other things to do, so it's up to you."

The CALL7 Investigators obtained the video through state open records laws and the whole video is attached to this story so you can see how Morrissey explains his decisions to decline hundreds of cases each year.

At the end, we asked Morrissey to go on camera, but he said he would want to review all of our information and questions before deciding whether to do an on-camera interview. Despite 7NEWS providing the districts we used for comparison, Morrissey did not agree to an on-camera interview.


Clarification: Denver’s felony sex assault figures include both stranger and acquaintance sex assault cases. The figures do not include sex assault on a child and sex assault during human trafficking cases. Those were not included in the figures Denver provided CALL7 Investigators for this story. The DA’s office could only provide stranger and acquaintance assaults because the office collected the information in compliance with a grant. The sex assault refusal data from other jurisdictions, which 7News used to compare to the rates that Denver refused cases, was comparable. Those jurisdictions also provided sex assault data that did not include sex assault on a child and human trafficking cases.


If you have a news tip, or follow-up to this story, e-mail Keli Rabon. You can also connect with me on Facebook or through Twitter @KeliRabon.

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