Anne Woods was 33 years old when she was sworn into office as a La Plata County Court Judge in October 2020. She was appointed by Gov. Jared Polis in September.
Woods stepped into her new role against a backdrop of overcrowded prisons that cost the U.S. government billions of dollars annually, in a nation that has more people in prison than anywhere else in the world. Not to mention a high-rate of recidivism – people being released from prison and then committing more crimes and going back to prison. It is estimated that half of the prison population in the U.S. is serving time for drug-related offenses, which is important to mention because mandated addiction and drug treatment is often used as a rehabilitative tool by the judiciary – and Anne Woods – as an alternative to time behind bars.
Finally, the national debate about how best to foster criminal justice reform had reached a crescendo when Woods arrived on the bench. Two theories butting heads at the forefront of that debate is rehabilitation versus deterrence via long jail and prison sentences.
About this series
This is the first of a two-part series about former La Plata County Judge Anne Woods, who lost a retention vote Nov. 8. Part two will appear online and in print editions on Wednesday.
Woods did not shy away from sharing her progressive judicial philosophy with an emphasis on restorative justice when she took her place on the bench. She told The Durango Herald in February 2021 that she emphasized rehabilitation over punishment because she believes it is better for the community in the long term.
But a few cases she adjudicated during her two years on the bench raised concerns about sentencing and bail amounts, or lack of bail, at the 6th Judicial District Attorney’s Office, which prosecutes cases in La Plata County. There was also an outcry from victims in one particular high-profile case involving a defendant who sexually molested multiple young adults. All of which led to questions and examination in reportage by the Herald. It was not long before criticism of Woods flooded social media, followed by the La Plata County Republican Party advocating against her retention in its 2022 voters pamphlet.
La Plata County voters chose not to retain Woods in the general election on Nov. 8. The final vote count was 11,892 votes to retain and 12,352 not to retain, a difference of 460 votes, or 49.05% to 50.95%.
Woods is one of only 25 judges who have stood for retention and lost since retention elections began in Colorado in 1968, according to Jon Sarché, spokesman for the Colorado Judicial Branch. She was the only judge to lose a retention vote during the 2022 election in Colorado.
Woods agreed to an interview with the Herald after the election despite her grievances with the newspaper’s coverage of her time on the bench.
In a letter to the Herald after her resignation following the retention vote, Woods wrote that she hoped the Herald would become “more objective” and said the public received a “great deal of misinformation” about her because the newspaper “cherry-picked facts about a few sensationalized cases.”
Woods began the interview by addressing the decision by a superior judge to remove her from setting bail for felony-level cases in August 2022, which could be construed as a reprimand for not setting acceptable bail amounts.
“I didn’t take it that way,” Woods said. “Any answer I give on why that happened would be speculation. I was basically told what the newspaper was told.”
Court Executive for the 6th Judicial District Eric Hogue released a statement at the time saying the decision was based on an attempt to prepare for upcoming legislation that would reduce a significant number of felony charges to misdemeanors; allowing the district court to set bail amounts in cases likely to be resolved in district court; and shifting some of the case load, which helps with case management.
“My caseload was big, and it actually took a lot off my plate,” Woods said. “I didn’t hate it. But no one really communicated with me about it.”
Releasing people on personal recognizance bonds (meaning they were released without bail) while awaiting trial, left the District Attorney’s Office with the opinion that “victims and community safety were secondary to the needs of the defendant,” said District Attorney Christian Champagne. And there is no doubt that it came back to bite Woods, particularly in the case of Rupert Chee.
“I regret those decisions,” Woods said. “Every judge faces those difficult decisions. I lost sleep over it every single time. I would be angry with the offender. I felt guilt. Rupert Chee is accused of killing a former client of mine (when she worked as a public defender) while driving drunk after I decided to release him. That hit me really hard. You sit there and think, ‘Shouldn’t I have seen the red flags?’ This was a case where everyone agreed he should be released on a PR (personal recognizance) bond with sobriety monitoring. And that was at the district attorney’s request, so that’s what we did. And of course hindsight being 20/20, of course I regret those decisions.”
But the right to bail is an important aspect of the Constitution that sets the U.S. apart from more repressive countries, Woods said, as is the presumption of innocence and therefore the presumption of relief and a reasonable bail while awaiting trial. High bails also disproportionately affect the poor, she said.
“We could prevent people from committing more crimes or harming others if we lock everyone up who has been charged with a crime before they are proven guilty,” she said. “But in that situation we wouldn’t be a free country. And our laws, particularly in Colorado, require a judge, in most cases, to release someone on the least restrictive conditions that are also consistent with community safety and making sure the person shows up for court.”
Woods said there were “plenty of cases” where she set high bails out of concern someone would reoffend but that she never felt comfortable about it because it is at odds with the Constitution.
After Woods’ interim evaluation by the Colorado Office of Judicial Performance, it was noted that she did increase cash bail amounts and hand out sentences above the minimums.
“I took the criticism and feedback and changed some of my approach,” she said. “I was also starting to see what worked and what didn’t. I wouldn’t say that I ever changed my philosophy, but it certainly evolved.”
A couple of Woods’ cases, alluded to earlier, that sparked frustration in the prosecutor’s office, appeared in the Herald, and provoked outrage and condemnation by some in the public, involved defendants Cody Stowe – who stood accused of breaking a woman’s cheekbone and knocking her unconscious while on parole for a similar offense; and Preston Pitcher – convicted of sexually molesting four young adults he mentored at a church program.
The District Attorney’s Office requested a $25,000 bail be set for Stowe. Woods set bail at $5,000. The assistant district attorney at the time, David Ottman, expressed exasperation with Woods in the courtroom and decried his concern for public safety.
“He was already being held without bail because he had violated parole,” Woods said. “He wasn’t being released anytime soon by the parole board. So that was the initial thing, his bail didn’t really matter because parole had him in jail, without bond, and would only be releasing him at some point if they thought it was appropriate. So I wanted to leave that decision to them.”
“But what the Herald time and time again failed to account for were conditions of bond, and that’s something I used a lot,” she said. “So drug and alcohol testing, protection orders so they can’t go certain places or can’t contact victims, things that would actually address community safety.”
The alternative can be someone posting a high bail and then being broke once they are released and not having the money to pay for mandated drug testing multiple times a week, so they commit more crime to get money, Woods said.
“So bail money helps them show back up, but it doesn’t stop them from committing crime while they are out,” she said.
Pitcher pleaded guilty and faced 60 days in jail and four years probation. Woods sentenced him to probation only. The district attorney and the victims expressed outrage in court.
“There’s a misconception that I refused a sentence in jail,” Woods said. “Part of the plea deal the district attorney wanted was the 60 days, but if they wanted to make sure the guy got jail time they could have made it a part of the plea, not left it up to the judge. They could have refused the plea deal if jail time wasn’t going to be part of it and taken the case to trial.
“But of course that would have meant the victims having to relive their trauma on the witness stand,” she continued. “Now, did the DA strongly advocate for 60 days in jail? Yes. But here’s the thing, they were in charge of the plea bargaining. They could have made that a condition of the agreement.”
Woods said she understands how difficult it must be to have something horrible happen and then not have the judge share that anger and call the person out. Did she think someone who victimized others in that way deserved jail time?
“Absolutely, 100%,” she said. “I was disgusted by his actions. But my goal was to figure out a way to make sure that he never victimized someone again. If I threw him in jail for 60 days I was concerned that he would be less likely to successfully complete sex offender probation and more likely to reoffend because jail is a place where people often become criminals if they weren’t already. And I didn’t want to take that chance.”
It would have been easier to do that and to call him “disgusting or a monster or whatever they wanted me to do,” Woods said. “But I needed to send him a message that inspired him to change his behavior, rather than go back to victimizing others because everyone thinks he’s a monster anyway.
“I mean, humans are kind of self-fulfilling creatures. If someone says you are a certain thing, many times you’re going to believe it and just say, ‘Well that’s me, I’m a monster.’”
Champagne took umbrage with Woods’ characterization of the plea deals put before her.
“With the Preston Pitcher case, when we do something like a cap of 60 days, we’re giving the court a range, and ultimately it is the court’s decision to hand down a sentence and the court has to do what they think is right,” he said. “In that particular case the victims were very upset. We argued for 60 days in jail and she ruled against us.
“And it’s something that’s within her discretion to do that,” he said. “So it’s kind of hard for me to hear that she believes it’s the district attorney’s fault this guy didn’t get any jail time. That is a decision that is 100% on her – and nobody else.”