Alonzo Payne

Colorado attorney general to oversee reform of San Luis Valley DA’s office after prosecutor violated crime victims’ rights

Alonzo Payne
Alonzo Payne, district attorney for the 12th Judicial District, is facing a recall effort and special election

The Colorado Attorney General’s Office will oversee reforms within 12th Judicial 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 Tuesday morning.

The agreement will be in place for three years.

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 but then said he was busy during the scheduled interview time and did not respond to future calls or texts.

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.

Editorial: Incompetence and impropriety threaten Colorado’s judicial branch Previous post Editorial: Incompetence and impropriety threaten Colorado’s judicial branch
Matt King, Meow Wolf's co-founder and creative director, died unexpectedly on July 9, 2022. The cause of death was not immediately known. Next post Meow Wolf co-founder Matt King, who was instrumental in Denver location, has died