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Longtime prosecutor resigns to pursue private practice

David Ottman has been practicing law for 21 years, including 13 with the 6th Judicial District Attorney’s Office in Durango
Assistant District Attorney David Ottman stands in front of the La Plata County Courthouse on Friday, his last day as a prosecutor for the 6th Judicial District Attorney’s Office. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

After 13 years with the 6th Judicial District Attorney’s Office, David Ottman, 49, is leaving to start his own private practice.

Deputy District Attorney-Appellate Sean Murray, who has been with the office since 2017, will take over as assistant district attorney, said District Attorney Christian Champagne.

Ottman’s practice will be a mesh of criminal and civil law in criminal defense work, workers’ compensation and personal injury cases, he said. He’s calling it Ottman Law LLC.

Ottman got his start with the District Attorney’s Office in January 2009 as a deputy district attorney and became the assistant district attorney in 2017.

He said he has practiced law for 21 years. After so long, he wants to try his legal hand at new areas of law, saying it is good to challenge oneself.

After spending time as an attorney at Colorado Legal Services in Durango, Ottman took a job in Farmington at the District Attorney’s Office. It was there he met another attorney who became his mentor.

“(He told me), ‘The vast majority of the people we deal with are not bad people,’” Ottman said.

Ottman said he absorbed that advice and channeled it into his approach to prosecutorial law.

“I would like to think that I approached everything with, ‘This is a person that is in a bad spot, they maybe made not the greatest choice here,’” he said.

He tries to ask what can be done to remediate the harm caused to a victim while also recognizing that a criminal offender is a person who is struggling, and what can be done to help ensure that person doesn’t appear again before the court.

“If they are struggling with addiction, what can we do about that?” he said. “It can be really hard. Sometimes there’s just – or a lot of times, I guess – there’s not a perfect answer.”

He tries to remember that people have run-ins with the law, but for the most they are not bat people; rather, they made bad decisions.

Sometimes the District Attorney’s Office is successful in balancing justice with rehabilitation – sometimes it isn’t, Ottman said.

Changes ‘a long time coming’

The criminal justice system has come a long way in the last 21 years, he said. The trials that resulted from George Floyd’s murder at the hands of Minneapolis police officers forced changes to the criminal justice system that were “a long time coming,” he said.

“George Floyd was not unique,” he said. “That sort of crime by officers, by law enforcement – 2020 was not new. Those sorts of things have been going on for decades.”

The changes stirred by Floyd’s murder should have come much sooner, he said, but he is grateful to have finally witnessed the beginning of that change. He said society thinks about criminal justice differently than it has in the past.

The judicial system often has only two options when it comes to a criminal defendant – probation or incarceration – and people are more tuned in and thoughtful about those options and the impacts they have on society, he said.

“As a prosecuting agency, I think we’re a lot more aware of the impacts (of) our charging decisions and the work that we do,” Ottman said. “On people of color, on disadvantaged people, certainly on the poor.”

The courts are also more aware of economic disparities. Steep fines disproportionately punish the poor and keep people in the system, and the judicial system has taken note by removing some of those fines when possible.

There is also a greater focus on rehabilitation, he said.

One of the most interesting changes Ottman has witnessed is the introduction of virtual court proceedings as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Even to this day, many court proceedings can be heard or attended by telephone or Zoom, which was less common before the pandemic.

“I think it’s made it easier for people to make their court appearances,” he said. “I think in a lot of ways it’s made the court more accessible to the public, and I think that’s been a really wonderful change.”

‘Self-care is important’

Working with victims and defendants is challenging and can take a toll on attorneys, whether they are prosecutors or defense attorneys, Ottman said.

“You have very difficult conversations a lot of times with victims, their family, people that are in very horrible situations,” he said. “Violent crimes have happened to them. You talk with defense attorneys and their clients and you hear about their stories, too. And yeah, it absolutely takes a toll.”

Even with new mental health resources available for Colorado attorneys, self-care has always been important, Ottman said.

He said many of his colleagues are cyclists, skiers and runners, and it’s important to take the time to work out trauma.

Whenever Ottman feels like he needs to get away from work for a bit, he’ll mountain bike in Horse Gulch or hop on his road bike for an hourlong lunch ride.

“Remind yourself to get away from it, get away from the office a little bit,” he said. “If you can’t take care of yourself you can’t take care of the people you’re trying to serve. You can’t take care of your family.”

Hoping for a positive impact

Ottman said he hopes people see the work he did as “fair and just.” He hopes attorneys and litigants that dealt with him feel like they were heard. He hopes people considered him a good listener who was willing to give people the benefit of the doubt. He hopes he was able to comfort victims in his role as a prosecutor.

“I would like to think that when I was working with victims they felt heard and understood, and that I was able to, to the extent that I could, meet them in the place where they were at in the midst of what is often a very terrible part of their lives,” he said.

He is proud to have done public service in Archuleta, La Plata and San Juan counties and to have worked with people “across the spectrum.”

Champagne said Ottman is “the ultimate professional.”

“He has served our community with excellence for years,” he said. “He is a model prosecutor and he gave his very best every single day to his job and to his community. He will be sorely missed.”

Deputy district attorneys Reid Stewart and Alex Lowe also recently resigned from the District Attorney’s Office, Champagne said. Stewart retired from the practice of law and is changing careers and Lowe moved to Denver to serve as a civil litigator.

“It’s a time of change in our office, but we deeply appreciate all the work that these guys have put in over the years,” Champagne said.

cburney@durangoherald.com

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