In the days since taking over the district attorney’s office in the 12th Judicial District, Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser has already uncovered a backlog of roughly 500 cases.
Weiser’s office took over after the resignation of District Attorney Alonzo Payne, who resigned one day after Weiser announced he would appoint a monitor to oversee the office after finding that the DA’s office had violated victims’ rights.
The attorney general’s office is running Payne’s office until a new interim DA is appointed by Gov. Jared Polis.
In an exclusive interview with Denver7 Investigates, Weiser asked the people of the San Luis Valley to be patient while the DA’s office is rebuilt and special prosecutors begin working through the backlog.
“That’s going to take time,” Weiser said. “And unfortunately, the valley is hurting right now.”
Since taking office in 2021, Payne has faced constant scrutiny from law enforcement and city officials in Alamosa, the largest city in the district. Leaders felt that Payne was not prosecuting serious crimes, while crime victims repeatedly said they were not informed or consulted when suspects were offered plea deals, as required by law.
On top of the attorney general’s investigation for violating the state’s Victims Rights Act, Payne was also facing a recall election that was organized and funded by the City of Alamosa.
In his resignation letter, Payne wrote, “It is apparent to me that the elite in the San Luis Valley and the judicial activists among us do not want to see criminal justice reform enacted.”
In a press conference in July, Weiser said he had not seen violations of this magnitude of the Victims Rights Act.
“This is a situation unlike any one we’ve seen,” he said.
In responding to Payne’s resignation letter, Weiser said that he’s glad that the now former DA stepped down.
“It was the best thing for the community,” he said. “This community needs a new start.”
Denver7 Investigates spent months reporting on serious violations within the 12th Judicial District, interviewing victims who said they were not treated with respect by the DA’s office and city leaders in Alamosa who said the DA was not doing his job.
“Victims were not listened to, they were not treated respectfully, they were not told about the critical stages of the criminal justice process,” Weiser said.
In a previous interview with Denver7 Investigates, Payne was adamant that he would not resign and felt that he had the support of the community that elected him. But less than three months later, he stepped down. He did not reply to repeated requests for comment for this story.
Weiser says his office is now focused on repairing what they can, but some plea deals will have to stand.
“One of the challenges is there was damage that was done that can’t be undone,” Weiser said. “A plea deal that’s been agreed to is locked in. What we can do going forward is build better practices.”
It’s unclear if Payne’s law license could be in jeopardy. Any decision would come from the state’s Attorney Regulation Counsel. Weiser said this situation can serve as a cautionary tale.
“It’s unprecedented. It’s terrible,” Weiser said. “I want victims to know how sorry we are about what they went through. No victim should have their rights violated.”