Who will replace District Attorney Dave Young after November?

Candidates for Colorado’s 17th Judicial District discussed Elijah McClain case, criminal justice reform

Republican Tim McCormack, left, and Democrat Brian Mason are vying to become the next attorney for Colorado's 17th Judicial District in the Nov. 3, 2020, election. (Photos courtesy the candidates)

District Attorney Dave Young announced on Thursday that his office has filed felony charges against five community activists who helped orchestrate protests throughout July to demand justice for Elijah McClain — a 23-year-old Black man who died days after a violent encounter with Aurora police in August 2019.

Young’s office, which encompasses Adams and Broomfield counties, has been in the national spotlight for its handling of the McClain case. Last year, the officers involved in McClain’s death — Nathan Woodyard, Jason Rosenblatt and Randy Roedema — were cleared of all criminal wrongdoing. There are five pending investigations into the McClain case and the Aurora Police Department. 

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As of Sept. 18, more than 125,700 people have signed an online petition calling for Young, who is a Democrat, to resign. But his days as district attorney are already numbered. Two candidates are competing to replace Young, who is term-limited, in the November election: Brian Mason, a Democrat, and Tim McCormack, a Republican. 

At an online forum on Tuesday night, the McClain case was high on community members’ minds. But the candidates, one of whom is part of Young’s office, skirted the questions. During the forum, candidates discussed mass incarceration, prison diversion programs, police shootings and what “defunding the police” means to them.

The forum was hosted by CCJRC4Action, a new affiliate of the nonprofit Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, which aims to educate the public about the role district attorneys play in the criminal justice system. 

“There has been more attention put to the district attorney races, partly because of the current political climate, but especially with what’s happening with the racial reckoning we are seeing and what’s happening in response to the lack of indictment of police in the shootings of specifically Black men and people of color,” said Juston Cooper, executive director of CCJRC4Action. 

In Colorado, district attorneys are elected in each of the state’s 22 judicial districts. They are tasked with prosecuting state crimes, filing charges and directing people to prison diversion programs. As the top prosecutor in each judicial district, they are influential in state and local policymaking. 

“I think the community, the broader public, is coming to understand the role that prosecutors play in those types of incidents,” Cooper said.

Colorado’s 17th Judicial District is one of six districts whose constituents are voting between two district attorney candidates in the November elections. The other 16 districts have uncontested races. 

DA candidates discuss Elijah McClain case

During the forum on Tuesday night, the moderator asked both candidates how they would “resolve” the McClain case. McCormack said he didn’t know enough about the case to comment.

“I believe the attorney general is looking into it,” said McCormack, who served as the chief trial deputy district attorney in the 17th Judicial District until 2017. “I don’t know if the city of Aurora has hired a private investigator, I believe they have as well. So we have all these investigations going on out there. I’d have to see what that looks like when the time comes, I guess. It’s kind of hard to answer that question, how I’m going to resolve something that I know nothing about.”

  It's kind of hard to answer that question, how I'm going to resolve something that I know nothing about.   -Tim McCormack, on the Elijah McClain case

Mason, who is currently the chief trial deputy district attorney for the 17th District, would also not comment on the case because he said it conflicts with “rules of ethics that we in the attorney profession have to follow.” But he added that McClain did not deserve to die, and that if he is elected, he will not be “afraid” to prosecute law enforcement officers who kill civilians.

“I have great faith in the Attorney General Phil Weiser, who’s been appointed as the special prosecutor on this case,” Mason said. “And I will eagerly await the decision that they make.”

When asked by a community member what they would do differently than the current DA by a community member, McCormack skirted the question by replying that he would not “retain” the current DA or his assistant district attorney if elected. “I believe them to be directly responsible for the demise of credibility and integrity of that office,” he said.

Mason replied by saying that he would work to foster more relationships between community members and the DA’s office that he is currently a part of.

Mass incarceration, police shootings discussed

“There is clearly a historic and profound over-incarceration in the state of Colorado and in the United States. And that’s something that district attorneys have to address,” said Mason during the forum. “A DA can help influence policy, and they can help influence where the state of Colorado puts their money.”

  There is clearly a historic and profound over-incarceration in the state of Colorado and in the United States.   -Brian Mason

During the discussion, the moderator asked if the candidates would refuse to prosecute low-level misdemeanors and drug possession cases. McCormack responded that it’s not a decision for the DA’s office, it’s up to the state legislature. “You cannot become an activist district attorney and decide you’re only going to focus on one aspect, and not other aspects of it,” he said. 

Earlier in the discussion, McCormack said that he was in favor of providing treatment and alternative sentencing and exploring more diversion programs. “Keeping people out of incarceration is in everybody’s best interest,” he added.

Mason said that those cases should be directed to the district’s diversion program. “That’s where those people can get treatment, and they can stay out of the criminal justice system altogether,” he added.

Candidates were asked if they would prosecute a police officer who shot an unarmed Black man in the back. McCormack said it depends. “We don’t know the facts and a hypothetical like that is very dangerous to go ahead and express,” he said. “You need to look at the whole investigation, start to finish.”

Based on the way it’s been asked, Mason answered with a simple, “Yes.”

The meaning of defunding the police

Both candidates said that they were opposed to defunding the police, but were open to discussions of reallocating funds towards other services. For many police reform advocates, that is exactly what defunding the police means.

“I don’t agree with defunding the police, I believe that we can use our resources better and to look for other ways to do that,” McCormack said. “Are there better ways we can do policing? Absolutely. Can we talk to departments about perhaps maybe moving certain funds away, doing like the STAR program we recently talked about? Absolutely. But a complete defund of the police, absolutely not.”

Denver’s STAR program, which was launched in June, aims to decrease police violence by sending social workers and paramedics to 911 calls that involve substance abuse and mental health crises instead of armed law enforcement officers.

Mason agreed, adding that crime prevention should include exploring mental health programs, drug addiction programs, poverty programs, and finding ways to get people employed and in housing.

In response to a question about addressing racial disparities within Colorado’s criminal justice system, Mason said the first step is acknowledging it’s a problem. “Anybody who suggests that there isn’t an over-incarceration problem of Black and brown people in our society, just isn’t looking at the statistics,” he added.

According to the most recent census data, Hispanic people make up 31% of the state’s prison population but only represent 22% of the state’s general population. Similarly, African American people make up 18% of the prison population but only 4.6% of Colorado’s general populations.

McCormack said his focus is on implicit bias training for prosecutors. “You’re training lawyers and understanding implicit bias exists and taking that out of the equation, so that you can have a fair resolution of the case, regardless of race.”

CCJRC4Action will be organizing additional district attorney candidate forums in the coming months and producing DA Voter Guides for several races. Colorado’s 2020 elections are on Nov. 3.

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