Lengthy battle ends with DA’s resignation

ALAMOSA — For months, a battle has been brewing between a makeshift coalition of victims of crime, law enforcement officials, members of the Alamosa City Council plus key city executives and the embattled District Attorney, who had run on a platform of criminal justice reform and, once in office, created a history of controversial practices and decisions in the prosecution of cases in the San Luis Valley.

On Wednesday, July 13, 12th Judicial District Attorney Alonzo Payne submitted his letter of resignation to the governor’s office, effective at 11:59 p.m. Wednesday night. Payne then sent a screenshot of the letter to the Denver Post for publication.

That afternoon, in a statement, Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser announced that he had been appointed interim District Attorney for the 12th Judicial District until the governor appointed a new District Attorney to permanently fill the position.

Just minutes later, the governor’s office issued a statement confirming the appointment, which was made via executive action following Payne’s resignation.

“Applications for district attorney for the 12th Judicial District may be submitted to [email protected]. Interviews will begin promptly,” the statement read.

Initially, the conflict was limited to a small, struggling recall campaign started in the fall of 2021 by Lani Welch, the first victim to file a complaint alleging the violation of rights guaranteed by the Victim’s Rights Act and the Colorado Constitution. Other victims with similar experiences soon joined in.

Then, on Feb. 16, the Attorney General made an announcement. Following an “unprecedented” referral from the governor’s office related to numerous confirmed violations of the Victim Rights Act, the AG’s office would be investigating the District Attorney’s Office of the 12th Judicial District.

At that point, the battle went Valley wide.

During the Alamosa City Council meeting held on March 2, Alamosa Police Department Chief Ken Anderson and Alamosa City Manager Heather Brooks made a comprehensive, alarming presentation to council members, detailing the “devastating” impact actions by the DA’s office was having on law enforcement and victims.

Members of the Alamosa City Council were presented with a proposal for an “unprecedented” ordinance allowing the city to spend up to $10,000 in collecting signatures on petitions to recall DA Payne. After a lengthy discussion, council passed the ordinance on first reading by a unanimous vote.

At the next meeting, held on March 16, members of the public — including victims with cases that had been prosecuted by the DA’s office — spoke to the council. Except for two individuals, all spoke in favor of the ordinance. A vote was taken, and the ordinance passed with all but one council member in support.

The next day, DA Payne filed embezzlement charges against former DA Robert Willett for actions Willett allegedly committed 15 months before and while still in office. Payne had defeated Willett in the Democratic primary which, with no Republican opponent, led to his automatic victory in the general election.

Willett had called for Payne’s resignation the previous month in a letter to the editor, and it was subsequently rumored that, should Payne be recalled, he would run for the position he formerly held. When asked, Willett would only say running was under consideration.

In the following weeks, victims of crime continued to step forward. The mayor held two roundtables — one with law enforcement and another with victims — where more sobering stories were told. County commissioners from five of the six counties weighed in as well as a collection of organizations, all speaking out against actions by the DA’s office and in favor of the recall election.

The ongoing story was covered locally and by major newspapers out of Denver, three different television stations and the Washington Post.

Through it all, District Attorney Alonzo Payne continued the course he had set for himself, pursuing — what he saw as — criminal justice reform while not responding to questions related to claims of VRA violations or requests for interviews regarding decisions he had made in prosecuting serious crimes.

With the recall campaign underway, volunteers obtained nearly 6,000 signatures on recall petitions in four weeks and, ultimately, close to 1,000 more signatures than required by statute.

On June 25, the Secretary of State (SOS) notified the city that the petitions for a recall campaign were deemed “certified.”

According to the SOS, DA Payne also had until last Friday to file an objection. No objection was filed, which opened the door for the governor’s office to set a date for the recall election and the vote to be held.

On Tuesday, July 12, “unprecedented” was used yet again in Attorney General Weiser’s press conference, announcing that the investigation was concluded.

In a strongly worded statement condemning the actions of the DA’s office related to victims’ rights, AG Weiser said that an agreement had been reached to include a monitor, chosen by the AG, who would oversee VRA-related actions taken by the DA’s office.

“Victims’ rights must be upheld during the justice process,” he said. “By excluding, disregarding, and disrespecting victims, District Attorney Payne and his office dishonored crime victims, and worse, compounded the trauma suffered from the crimes committed against them. Because the district attorney’s office failed to allow victims’ input and consultation during the justice process as required by law, those victims lost the chance to contribute to just outcomes in their cases. In some instances, the office may even have placed victims’ safety at risk.”

According to the agreement, should the monitor report to the state that there were continued violations, the AG’s office would exercise its authority to file a permanent injunction and, if necessary, refer all VRA cases — which covers at least 19 different potential criminal charges — for prosecution by other district attorney(s) in the state, essentially removing many serious crimes from prosecution by prosecutors actually located in the 12th Judicial District.

Less than 36 hours later, the battle that had been going on at various levels for almost a year came to an abrupt halt.

DA Payne’s resignation was submitted within days of when the governor’s office was likely to announce the date of the recall election. His resignation saved election clerks in the six counties of the San Luis Valley the significant amount of time required to hold an election on short notice — and on the heels of the recent primary with a general election on the horizon. It also saved the six counties in the Valley an expenditure of $94,000, to be divided proportionately.

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