Colorado’s attorney general will oversee reforms within San Luis Valley District Attorney Alonzo Payne’s office after the prosecutor repeatedly violated crime victims’ rights — the first time in 30 years that such enforcement has been required.
“Our action today will work to ensure the law will be followed, and in the future victims will be treated with respect,” Attorney General Phil Weiser said at a news conference in Denver on Tuesday morning.
For three years, the 12th Judicial District Attorney’s Office will be overseen by an outside monitor who will work with the office to revise policies and procedures on communicating with victims, implement new training on victim rights, create new informational materials for victims to explain their rights, and hold regular meetings with stakeholders, among other reforms.
The move is the latest turn in an ongoing saga for the embattled San Luis Valley district attorney, who is facing a recall effort from voters upset with his approach to prosecution, treatment of victims and what they see as mismanagement of the office: Payne’s former top deputy was suspended from practicing law in May after state authorities found he abused the power of the office, and Payne himself was cited for contempt of court by a judge who accused him of lying; the citation was later dismissed when Payne apologized and agreed to pay a fine.
Payne initially agreed to speak with The Denver Post for this story prior to the attorney general’s announcement on Tuesday, but then said he was busy during the scheduled interview time and did not respond to future calls or texts.
Reached Tuesday, though, he said he would cooperate with the attorney general’s reform effort. Asked whether the agreement was necessary, he hesitated.
“Eh, I don’t know about that,” he said. “I won’t comment on that.”
Weiser’s investigation found a systemic pattern of disregard for victims’ rights within Payne’s office, including that he and his staff belittled, ignored and yelled at victims. If Payne’s office fails to comply with the agreement’s reforms, the attorney general could file a civil lawsuit and seek enforcement from a judge, or move criminal cases in the 12th Judicial District to another district attorney’s office for prosecution, according to the agreement.
Weiser on Tuesday directly addressed victims whose rights Payne violated.
“Our message is, ‘We hear you, we see you,’” he said. “What you endured during the criminal justice process is wrong. He violated the law. It demands to be corrected. And while we can’t go back in time and change how you were treated, we can change how victims are treated going forward.”
The agreement will stay in place regardless of the results of an ongoing effort to recall Payne from office. If Payne is recalled and a new district attorney elected, the attorney general’s victim rights enforcement will end six months after the new prosecutor takes office, instead of in three years.
Recall effort underway
Alamosa city officials — who are backing the recall effort with $10,000 in city resources — say the understaffed prosecutor’s office is in disarray, with a backlog of criminal investigations that sit untouched for weeks or months awaiting the filing of formal charges.
“Each DA is different, and not every decision is perfect; sometimes they make mistakes,” Alamosa City Manager Heather Brooks said. “But we have never experienced anything like this.”
The recall effort in June earned enough signatures to trigger a special election in which voters across the 12th Judicial District — Alamosa, Conejos, Costilla, Mineral, Rio Grande and Saguache counties — will decide whether to strip Payne of his job and, if so, who the new district attorney should be.
So far, the only person publicly seeking to replace Payne is his predecessor, Robert Willett, who served as the 12th Judicial District’s district attorney before losing to Payne in the Democratic primary. Willett, however, is currently facing a felony embezzlement charge — a case Payne filed 10 days after Willett published a letter to the editor in the Alamosa Valley Courier calling for Payne’s resignation.
If convicted, Willett would be barred from holding public office. He would not discuss the allegations in detail but said Payne charged him as political retaliation.
“He charged me with a bogus crime, which he seems to have a propensity to do to people who oppose him or criticize him,” he said.
Willett is set for a jury trial at the end of August and in the meantime is going forward with his bid to be district attorney, gathering signatures and filling out the necessary paperwork.
A date for the special election hasn’t yet been set.
Willett is not the first to accuse Payne and his staff of abusing their power as prosecutors; Payne’s former assistant district attorney, Alex Raines, was suspended from practicing law for six months in May after state investigators found he’d repeatedly threatened to investigate or retaliate against critics.
Raines, who is no longer employed in the district attorney’s office but was second-in-command for about a year, threatened to investigate the 12th Judicial District’s chief probation officer after a disagreement, warned Alamosa police Chief Ken Anderson that he’d be “coming after him” if the chief continued to criticize Payne, and told a defense attorney in open court that the attorney’s stance in one case would impact future plea offers in other cases, prompting the presiding judge to warn him that such a practice would be “highly, highly unethical,” according to state disciplinary records.
The city and police department also cried foul in May, when Payne and the public defender’s office filed a joint motion seeking to hold the city and police department in contempt of court, alleging that the police department seized about $21,000 from a woman during an arrest but never returned the money to her as ordered by a judge. The city, however, denied any property was seized and said the complaint was “an abuse of the judicial system,” court records show. The city then sought sanctions against the public defender and Payne, saying the district attorney acted out of either “malpractice or… vindictiveness.”
Both sides’ complaints were dismissed when the judge found the property dispute to be outside the court’s jurisdiction.
Anderson said in an interview Sunday that Payne acted like a “bully.” The police chief has pushed for Payne’s recall and said he and his officers have been frustrated by Payne’s emphasis on giving plea deals with little-to-no jail time, particularly in drug cases but also in connection with more serious, violent crimes.
“Now is the time to be a criminal in the San Luis Valley because you’re going to see no prison time,” Anderson said.
DA’s reform approach draws ire
One high-profile case that has become a rallying cry for Payne’s critics involved an Alamosa couple who were arrested in 2020 and charged by Payne’s predecessor with first-degree murder in the death of their 16-month-old son. The child died from head trauma after suffering a skull fracture; his parents said their abuse of drugs contributed to the boy’s death, according to the Alamosa Valley Courier.
Each parent reached a plea deal with Payne on much lesser charges. The boy’s mother pleaded guilty to negligent child abuse and was sentenced to two years in community corrections; his father pleaded guilty to accessory to a crime and received six years of probation as a deferred sentence.
The lack of time behind bars outraged Payne’s critics, who say jail and prison sentences are sometimes the only appropriate punishment.
That’s a philosophy Payne roundly rejects — he ran for election with no prosecutorial experience on a platform of criminal justice reform, saying he hoped to eliminate cash bail and stop the “criminalization of poverty.”
“I decided I wanted to bring some human compassion to the district attorney’s office,” he told The Post in October 2020, months before he took office in January 2021. A San Luis native, Payne was raised by his grandparents after his parents died in a murder-suicide when he was 5, he told The Post.
“Fighting for what’s right, even if it’s not popular, is a pretty common theme down here,” he said at the time as he discussed how he’d seen jail and prison sentences disrupt lives and families.
Anderson said Payne’s approach has created a “revolving door” in which arrestees quickly return to criminal behavior, and has created a perception in the Alamosa community that people who commit crimes never go to jail or prison.
“People are scared,” the police chief said. “I’ve had dozens of people call me asking me to do something. And I do something. But when I am doing seven narcotics operations at one house, the same house, in a small community, what else can I do? We are doing what you pay us to do, getting the guns off the street and the drugs off the street, and we’re back doing it again and again.”
Yet he and other city officials insist the recall effort isn’t solely about Payne’s reform-minded approach to prosecution, and say the city has traditionally embraced alternatives to incarceration for low-level crimes.
“At the state and national level there is this debate between Republicans and Democrats on how to handle crime,” said Brooks, the city manager. “This is not a case study for that, because this isn’t someone who just had a more lenient philosophy and was doing their best to apply it to the highest professional level. This was someone who was incompetent and didn’t care how people were treated and did not do his job.”
Victims feel mistreated
As recently as Friday, victims of crime were still struggling to meet with Payne, they said.
Tumara Steinbach was supposed to meet with Payne then to talk about the plea agreement the DA plans to offer the man charged with killing her close family friend, Brian Taylor, 41, who was stabbed to death in Saguache County in February.
But Payne never showed. He didn’t call or email an excuse, Steinbach said, though the suspect is scheduled for a plea hearing July 19, and a victim advocate whose been working with the family said the plea offer would be for a sole charge of attempted assault, which Steinbach called “an insult.”
“Attempted assault when the individual is deceased, and he never left that house?” she said. “…Brian’s life is over. Brian’s life ended.”
While victims of crime in Colorado don’t have the authority to reject or approve plea offers, the state’s Victim Rights Act does require that victims be given a chance to weigh in on plea offers, be notified of key hearings and be kept apprised of scheduling changes, among other protections.
Victims who feel they’ve been mistreated can complain to state officials, who can take a variety of remedial measures if a violation of victim rights is found, like mandating additional training for the district attorney’s office, facilitating a meeting between the victim and the agency or requiring the office to update its policies. If the district attorney’s office refuses to cooperate, state officials can pass the case up to the Colorado Attorney General’s Office for further investigation.
In the nearly 30 years since the Victim Rights Act was passed, that had never happened — until this year, when the Crime Victim Services Advisory Board escalated the case against Payne after receiving multiple complaints about his behavior. The board found he and his assistant district attorney yelled at victims, skipped meetings with victims or arrived late, failed to communicate with victims and generally treated victims with disrespect.
Payne also blew off mandated remedial training in December, appearing “disengaged and on (his) phone,” the board found. The training sessions were interrupted by attorney outbursts and confrontations, according to records kept by the advisory board.
The contempt of court charge that Payne faced also involved his interactions with a victim; he claimed a criminal case had to be dismissed because a victim refused to testify, but, in fact, the victim was willing to testify, according to court records.
Lani Welch, a victim of domestic violence who found Payne to be rude and dismissive during her own case and who objected to the plea agreement he offered her abuser, said she continues to receive calls from other victims upset with the way Payne treated them.
“By the time it was done and over, Payne would trigger me, my PTSD, in the way my offender used to trigger me,” she said. “When I would speak to him, I felt like it was my offender. At the end of this, I felt like I wasn’t just fighting for justice from one person, but two.”
She and her mother, Terry Hammond, past president of the Alamosa County Republican Party, started the recall effort against Payne, though it floundered until the city of Alamosa backed the campaign. Welch said she was not registered to vote until the recall effort began; now she’s registered as an unaffiliated voter.
“I don’t want these victims to feel like they still don’t matter,” she said. “I want them to know that their voices are heard. It’s about them and not politics. In a lot of ways I agree with DA Payne, we do need some type of reform when it comes to petty crimes, drug addiction, mental health. However, I don’t agree with letting violent or repeat offenders back out with nothing.”
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