Steamboat Springs District attorney candidate Tammy Stewart cited 2006's "Sweet Pea incident" as what drove her from the 14th Judicial District and inspired her to seek election to change the way the office is run.
"It looked like Steamboat Springs victimizing people for eating garbage," Stewart said. "I left the (District Attorney's) Office because of the Sweet Pea case."
Stewart and her opponent, Assistant District Attorney Elizabeth Oldham, discussed the Sweet Pea case and public confidence in the District Attorney's Office on Wednesday night at a forum sponsored by the Routt County League of Women Voters.
In September 2006, two men were sentenced to six months in jail for allegedly stealing fruit from Sweet Pea Produce on Yampa Street in downtown Steamboat. In part because of public outcry, the District Attorney's Office reduced the men's sentences and had them released from jail after serving only 10 days.
The accused men, Giles Charle and David Siller, maintained they took food from the trash and not from inside the produce stand. They originally were charged with second-degree burglary and misdemeanor theft, and they agreed to plead guilty to misdemeanor trespassing to avoid a felony conviction.
Stewart said the lack of discretion allowed under District Attorney Bonnie Roesink's leadership is what drove her to leave the District Attorney's Office, and she specifically cited the Sweet Pea incident as a contributing factor. Stewart worked as a deputy district attorney in Routt County at the time.
"I didn't have any choice as to what that plea bargain was going to be - (then assistant district attorney) Kerry St. James handed me a file. All I was allowed to do was carry the file into the courtroom and read the offer," Stewart said.
At a forum Tuesday before the Steamboat Springs Rotary Club, Oldham tried to distance herself from the current leadership in the District Attorney's Office, saying she wanted to ease top-down micromanagement and give the 14th Judicial District's prosecutors more discretion in handling their own cases.
The way the Sweet Pea case was handled contributed to the "disconnect" between the public and District Attorney's Office, and the case should have been handled with more discretion, Oldham said Wednesday.
"When you're a prosecutor, you do what's right, no matter what your boss tells you," Oldham said.
Prosecutor retention has been cited as a concern with the District Attorney's Office for years - in the past year, the Steamboat Springs office has experienced 100 percent turnover.
Oldham, a Republican, became assistant district attorney after St. James left the 14th Judicial District in May. She has seven years experience as a prosecutor in Grand and Summit counties and lives in Grand Lake.
Democratic candidate Stewart has 12 years of experience as a prosecutor in Colorado, including two years in Steamboat Springs, and now prosecutes child abuse cases as an assistant Moffat County attorney. She lives in Steamboat Springs, where she also operates a private practice.