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What to know about the local district attorney race

For the first time since 1992, there is a contested election for the 8th Judicial District attorney position, which covers Larimer County and Jackson County. Candidates Mitch Murray and Gordon McLaughlin are running to fill the district attorney seat soon to be vacated by term-limited incumbent, Cliff Riedel.

The Collegian has written individual profiles of both candidates which you can read here for Murray and here for McLaughlin. This fact sheet provides a quick overview of both candidates and what this race means for residents.

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What does the district attorney do?

By definition, a DA represents the state of Colorado as the prosecuting attorney in criminal cases, from traffic violations to felonies, according to the Legal Information Institute.

However, their powers also include deciding whether or not to bring charges against an arrested person by reviewing the police reports. DAs can choose to increase, reduce or dismiss charges; determine if a defendant is offered diversion and influence the amount of cash bail.

The American Civil Liberties Union calls DAs “the gatekeepers of the criminal legal system,” and the Vera Institute of Justice found DAs have “broad discretion (to) affect the trajectory and outcome of criminal cases.”

In Larimer County, the DA manages a team of deputy district attorneys. About two-thirds of the cases filed are misdemeanor and traffic violations, according to their public case tracker.

What’s special about this race?

McLaughlin is the first Democratic challenger to the seat in nearly 30 years. The DA election has been uncontested since 1992, according to the Coloradoan

Prior to this election, there have been three other district attorneys since 1972, all running under the Republican party.

  • 1972-2004: Stu VanMeveren (became term-limited after 1994 Colorado voters placed term limits on all non-judicial elected officials)
  • 2005-2012: Larry Abrahamson (term-limited) 
  • 2013-2020: Cliff Riedel (term-limited) 

Events from this summer have further highlighted the significance of the DA’s role as protests about violence and injustice in the police and the criminal justice systems have swept the nation. 

Candidate Quick Overview

The candidate responses are listed in alphabetical order. Their answers in quotes have been lightly edited for space.

Gordon McLaughlin

  • Previous experience: Over six years working in the DA’s office. Previously a deputy district attorney in Larimer and Eagle County.
  • Endorsements: Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser, Mayor Pro Tem Kristin Stephens, Congressman Joe Neguse
  • Party: Democrat
  • Website: https://www.mclaughlinforda.com

Mitch Murray

  • Previous experience: Over 29 years working in the DA’s office. Currently the first assistant district attorney.
  • Endorsements: Incumbent District Attorney Cliff Riedel, Larimer County Sheriff Justin Smith, Larimer County Commissioner Tom Donnelly
  • Party: Republican
  • Website: https://www.votemitchmurrayda.com/priorities

What motivated you to run for this position?

McLaughlin: “I was a deputy district attorney here in Larimer County for about seven years and so I saw firsthand some of the good things that were happening in the criminal justice system but also some of the problems. And my experience and the experience of a lot of my colleagues and former colleagues in the district attorney’s office here was that it was not a system where new voices were being heard… Folks were not receptive to new ideas.

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“It became clear to me that it was a very complacent system and that the goal was to continue to be complacent. With what we know about criminal justice now in 2020, about what can be done to improve our community to treat everyone fairly…I was tired of seeing us fall behind our neighboring counties in some of these approaches and decided that it needed to be changed and so stepped up to change it.”

Murray: “In a very real sense, I feel a responsibility. I have been working in the criminal justice system for 30 years and have had a great deal of training and experience, and I think I’m the best person to lead that office forward.

“More than that, I love this community and the people in it. And in this job you get to help people. And when I say, help people I mean victims that are involved in that crime and even the defendants because a big part of what you do is trying to change people’s lives, to bring them around to maybe a more law abiding way of living and then addressing issues that they have. 

“I love the people in our office. They are dedicated to that same mission and they work their butts off every day. And I believe that I can help lead them and help provide them with what they need to do the best job possible.”

What are the most pressing issues you’re seeking to address?

McLaughlin: Improve community outreach to build public trust. Address over incarceration through cash bail reform, channeling energy into rehabilitative resources, and creating a more equitable system of criminal justice.

Murray: Address public safety, reducing violent crime and gun crime while protecting the community. Increase community engagement by meeting people where they are. Increase public transparency through social media and sharing data

How would you address the concerns of racism and inequity in the criminal justice system?

McLaughlin: Create an overall more equitable system by reforming cash bail and ensuring equal access to nonpunitive rehabilitation. Understand and address how certain groups—such as the Black community or the Latinx community—have been historically marginalized by the criminal justice system. Ensure the DA’s office has representation of various groups reflective of the community. Empower diverse viewpoints to reflect the community’s values. Talk to the community and let them know who is standing behind the DA’s office’s decisions in order to build public trust

Murray: Continue education within the DA’s office and encourage it within the local law enforcement agencies. Says local police take implicit bias training seriously. Talk about the issue to keep up awareness and put it at the forefront of people’s minds. Monitor the cases coming into the DA’s office and follow up on case results to ensure bias is not preventing a just outcome based on facts. Says the office has made great strides this way. Further build officer trust through the Critical Incident Response Team investigations.

What are the critical differences between you and your opponent?

McLaughlin: Says he brings a fresh perspective whereas his opponent has become complacent to new ideas. Would personally focus on looking at nonpunitive solutions and diverting low-level cases to save resources for serious crimes.

Murray: Says he has the leadership experience to aid and understand the team of attorneys. More experience with prosecuting major cases like first-degree murder and sexual assault. Says he holds better judgment to seek justice based on facts.

Our paper’s audience is primarily Colorado State University students. What would you say makes this race most relevant to them? 

McLaughlin: Says one of his top priorities is to establish a young adult diversion program, which is a type of rehabilitation program to repair harm to victims of crime, and to allow the offender to avoid conviction. CSU students would be eligible for such a program. Larimer County currently has a juvenile diversion program and is piloting an adult mental health diversion program.

Murray: Says college students are hopefully just as concerned as any other member of the public that the DA’s office is achieving equitable results and protecting the public. Says he takes oversight over law enforcement very seriously and is very open to hearing from different groups to see if changes should be made.

See more from the candidates

Samantha Ye can be reached at news@collegian.com or on Twitter @samxye4.

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