One candidate took aim at his opponent while the other touted his accomplishments during a forum held Tuesday for two candidates seeking to become the top prosecutor of a three-county region in Southwest Colorado.
Jason Eley said he wants to change the culture at the 6th Judicial District Attorney’s Office, while Sean Murray said he wants to build on the successes of the office – which covers San Juan, Archuleta and La Plata counties.
The forum was sponsored by the La Plata County Democrats as part of a luncheon series held on Zoom.
Eley currently serves as assistant district attorney for the 22nd Judicial District based in Cortez, while Murray serves as assistant district attorney for the 6th Judicial District based in Durango.
They are running for the district attorney position held by Christian Champagne, who is term-limited.
Murray touted his experience with rehabilitative justice programs, victim compensation efforts, mentoring young attorneys, using a data dashboard to dismantle implicit biases among prosecutors, and training law enforcement about their legal rights and boundaries.
Murray said the 6th Judicial District has been successful at reducing crime over the past 24 years. In 1999, the district had 4,664 criminal cases submitted by law enforcement for prosecution. By 2023, that number had dropped to 2,866 cases.
“It’s not as though law enforcement are presenting the same amount of cases to us and we’re saying, ‘No, these cases aren’t good enough,’” he said. “It’s just the crime is down in the judicial district.”
Murray said he has prosecuted more serious felony trials in the past 12 years than any other criminal attorney in the area. Such cases included arson, kidnapping, vehicular homicide, witness tampering, child sex assault and first-degree murder.
According to his website, he has been endorsed by Champagne, Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser, state Rep. Barbara McLachlan and several attorneys.
Murray said he has a deep understanding of the law, which serves him well in leading other attorneys – many of whom are fresh out of law school.
He acknowledged that turnover has been a challenge for the 6th Judicial District Attorney’s Office, but he said that is largely because rural district attorneys’ offices struggle to pay the same salaries as larger metro offices. Prosecutors start at rural district attorneys’ offices and then move on to bigger offices with higher pay, he said.
He said he is working with McLachlan and state Sen. Cleave Simpson on a bipartisan bill to improve district attorney salaries, especially in rural districts.
“The turnover is a problem. I don’t think anyone can deny it,” Murray said. “Turnover has been a problem across the state.”
Eley said he wants to change the culture of the 6th Judicial District Attorney’s Office, which he says has experienced a 100% turnover rate among attorneys under Champagne’s tenure.
If elected, Eley said he would improve the retention rate and staff the office with “competent attorneys capable of prosecuting complicated crimes.”
He took a jab at the 6th Judicial District Attorney’s Office for paying an outside district attorney’s office to assist with the prosecution of Mark Redwine, who was convicted in 2021 of murdering his 13-year-old son, Dylan.
“I will end the practice of paying Front Range offices to prosecute complicated murder cases,” Eley said.
He also took aim at Murray for overseeing a plea agreement that resulted in a Durango man being sentenced to six years in prison for sexual assault. Murray eventually filed a motion seeking that the conviction be overturned after the alleged victim testified in a different case that the sexual contact between her and the suspect was consensual.
At the time, Murray called the man’s conviction a “manifest injustice” and asked the court to nullify the court’s decision to send him to prison for six years.
But Eley said the suspect was “forced” into the plea agreement to avoid a possible life sentence.
“The testimonial evidence of (the suspect’s) innocence was available to the prosecution prior to being provided to the judge,” he said.
He said the defendant spent almost a year in prison and received $65,000 for his wrongful conviction.
“Under my administration, the practice of overcharging and increasing charges for the sole reason to scare a defendant into taking a plea to something will end,” Eley said. “This practice easily leads to false convictions by scaring defendants into pleading guilty out of fear of unnecessarily extreme sentences.”
He said he would rather release 10 guilty people than convict or hold in jail one innocent person.
He spoke highly of alternatives to incarceration and improving reentry programs for people getting out of jail or prison.
Eley said he would work with public and private agencies to implement programs aimed at preventing repeat offenses among unhoused residents.
“I have salons willing to provide haircuts, thrift stores able to provide clothing, restaurants with dishwasher jobs, and I also have medical professionals willing to contribute to provide some mental health assistance,” he said.
As of Wednesday, Eley listed four endorsements on his website, including his current boss in the 22nd Judicial District, two doctors from New Mexico and a former client from when he was a defense attorney.
The primary election will be held June 25. It is a mail-in election, with ballots being sent June 3. The winner of the Democratic DA candidates will appear on the general election ballot in November.