NewsDenver7 | Investigates

Actions

San Luis Valley district attorney faces attorney general investigation, recall effort

“He’s making a mockery of the judicial system,” Alamosa mayor says
Alonzo Payne.jpg
Posted at 6:30 PM, May 06, 2022
and last updated 2022-05-07 01:42:32-04

ALAMOSA, Colo. — The man who shot Danny Pruitt during a Black Lives Matter rally in Alamosa saw his attempted murder charge pleaded down to tampering with a corpse.

But Danny Pruitt is still alive.

“For a little while, I thought the district attorney was trying to call me a dead person,” Pruitt said.

The shooter, 28-year-old James Marshall, was sentenced to 11 years in prison, but Pruitt says he was only told about the plea deal from District Attorney Alonzo Payne three days before the trial was slated to start.

Pruitt, who was shot while in his truck June 4, 2020, did not want a plea deal in the case and filed a complaint with the Rocky Mountain Victim Law Center. He feels that Marshall was not held accountable. He was not the only one to feel this way.

“I didn’t want to discuss any kind of plea deal,” Pruitt said. “He almost took my life.”

In the year and a half since Payne took office as district attorney of the 12th Judicial District in the San Luis Valley in south-central Colorado, roughly a dozen complaints have been filed against him related to victims’ rights. Now, he’s facing an investigation from the Colorado Attorney General and a recall election funded by the City of Alamosa.

“He’s making a mockery of the judicial system,” Alamosa Mayor Ty Coleman said.

Recently, the Alamosa City Council voted to alter an ordinance, which permitted the city to allocate $10,000 toward an effort to recall Payne. Council and city staff have received complaints about Payne, notably from the city’s police chief.

Chief Ken Anderson spoke in front of council on multiple occasions, lamenting the plea deals and lack of action by Payne, who he said was neglecting to pursue charges on large drug busts.

“This has gotten extremely serious,” Anderson said. “It’s putting the community at risk when you’re not holding people accountable.”

Anderson said some of his officers and other law enforcement in the area have had crimes committed against them and the assailants were not charged. He added that during arrests, suspects often laugh at officers, knowing they will soon be back out on the street.

Over the past nine months, Anderson said his officers have conducted more than 40 narcotics operations, none of which have gone to trial.

“We need to get Mr. Payne out of office as soon as possible, or he needs to resign and realize that he is not capable of doing this job,” Anderson said.

It’s complaints like these that led the city to take the unprecedented action of using taxpayer money to fund a recall against the district attorney. The city’s website also has a tab on its homepage devoted to issues with Payne.

“It feels strange. It’s not something I think any of us ever thought we would be involved in, but we feel the risk to our community,” Alamosa City Manager Heather Brooks said. “We just can’t go another three years.”

Payne, who campaigned on criminal justice reform, noting the overcrowding of jails in the six counties he represents in the San Luis Valley, says he is simply living up to his promises.

“They need rehabilitation,” he told Denver7 Investigates. “And (the Department of Corrections) is not providing it. County jails can’t afford to provide it.”

Payne also says he has limited resources, which has led to delays in prosecuting cases or pleading down ones his office can’t get to.

But Brooks says the office has historically been underfunded.

“He has similar staffing as to what previous district attorneys had,” she said.

On the recall effort, Payne said he believes what the city is doing is unconstitutional and that he plans to file a lawsuit.

“They are using taxpayer dollars for political purposes,” he said. “They may disagree with my approach to prosecution and I understand their perspective, but I do not agree with their approach to it either. And they are not the district attorney, I am.”

Brooks, however, says this isn’t about politics, but holding those accountable who commit serious crimes.

“We don’t need to be over the top on crime,” she said. “We need to have consequences and right now, there’s nearly zero consequences.”

ATTORNEY GENERAL INVESTIGATION

While Pruitt had just three days' notice of a potential plea deal for the man who shot him, Lani Welch said she was told only an hour before a court hearing that her assailant would be offered a plea. She was so distraught in court that the hearing had to be continued.

Eventually, her ex-fiance Jeffrey Tonso, who was facing third-degree assault and stalking charges, pleaded to an obstruction of a telephone charge and received 18 months in jail.

“I was completely disrespected,” Welch said.

Welch filed a complaint with the Colorado Crime Victim Services Advisory Board, which found that Payne likely violated the state’s Crime Victims Rights Act and that she was not “treated with fairness, respect and dignity.” The findings also stated that she was not updated on the status of the case and not provided the right to consult with a prosecutor.

The board referred its findings to Gov. Jared Polis, who referred them to Attorney General Phil Weiser. The attorney general is now looking into the matter. This is the first time since the Crime Victim Rights Act passed in 1992 that a case has been referred to the attorney general to investigate.

“The board’s finding that the District Attorney’s Office of the 12th Judicial District repeatedly violated the Victim Rights Act is extremely troubling,” Weiser said in a statement. “My office will work to ensure that the district attorney’s office fully complies with the law — either by securing the district attorney’s agreement to a strong corrective plan or by seeking a court order that will require that office to follow the law.”

Payne took some accountability for violating the rights of victims and attributed the issue to staffing numbers.

“We’ve been very busy and there have been some things that we have missed with victims’ rights,” he said, adding that he would cooperate with the attorney general.

However, in pleading down the case against Anderson, the man who shot Pruitt, he defended the decision.

“The defendant received an 11-year DOC sentence, which, from our perspective, was the appropriate outcome,” he said. “Talk to any other attorney. Plea bargains happen every day.”

Payne told Denver7 that he would supply data to show that the number of pleas out of his office is consistent with other DAs. He has yet to produce that information, despite repeated follow-ups.

In addition to the attorney general investigation, a judge in Rio Grande County cited Payne for contempt of court for victims’ rights violations. He is due back in court on that charge next week.

RECALL EFFORT

The recall effort is moving forward now that the form language has been approved by the Colorado secretary of state. Signatures are being collected and proponents need just more than 4,000 valid signatures by June 17.

Despite this, Payne is adamant that he will not resign.

“I’m doing it differently and I tend to do it differently,” Payne said. “The City of Alamosa does not run the San Luis Valley.”

But for the city leaders in Alamosa, they’re committed to getting the votes they need to remove Payne from office.

“He’s doing a disservice to the community he swore that he was going to help protect,” Brooks said. “And I think there’s going to be enough momentum to not only get the signatures, but to get him recalled.”