Routt County DA: Felony plea deals no longer will be bargains
October 10, 2013
Steamboat Springs — Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the name of the law school that Rusty Prindle attended.
District Attorney Brett Barkey put defense attorneys and accused felons on notice Thursday that plea offers going forward may no longer be the sweet deals they are used to.
"There has been a long tradition of the defense bar being extremely happy with the dispositions they see out of this office," Barkey said. "They may not be as happy in the future."
Barkey went on to elaborate about his perceived attitudes from the defense attorney community.
"They shouldn't be overly happy with us," Barkey said. "If they're really happy with us, we're not doing our job probably."
Barkey made the statement as several defense attorneys expressed their shock and sadness Thursday about the recent unexpected departure of Routt County's chief prosecutor, Rusty Prindle, who worked under Barkey.
When several prominent local defense attorneys were told about Barkey's comments, they laughed.
"What that means is more cases are going to go to trial, and the District Attorney's Office may not be happy with the verdicts," Steamboat defense attorney Kris Hammond said.
Some attorneys did not want to speak on the record because they were concerned it could hurt their future negotiations with Barkey and his team.
Cheryl Hardy-Moore, a former Routt County prosecutor who now is a defense attorney, said she hoped Barkey's statements do not mean a return to an age in Routt County when prosecutors were overly harsh, unwilling to compromise and practiced "over the top prosecution.”
"I'd hate to see it go that route again," Hardy-Moore said.
Law enforcement officials sided with Barkey and are encouraged by his words and "tough on crime" attitude.
"The word I get from a lot of the victims in our community is that if you commit a crime, Routt County is the place you want to commit it," Routt County Sheriff Garrett Wiggins said.
Wiggins would not directly answer whether he was happy with Prindle's work in the Routt County District Attorney's Office.
"I guess what I would say to that is there is always room for improvement," Wiggins said.
In some instances, he said, accused felons were given plea offers without the consultation of the Sheriff's Office.
"That was a little troubling for me and my staff," Wiggins said.
Steamboat Springs Police Chief Joel Rae said that in recent years, he has not heard the unhappy "grumbles" from the defense attorneys that had been apparent with past Routt County prosecutors.
"You heard those grumbles when there was a hard line being held and more trials being held because a plea deal couldn't be reached," Rae said.
As of late, he said, those "grumbles" have not been as frequent.
"I think that very well could be due to some plea deals that are probably a little soft," Rae said.
Barkey — the elected district attorney for the 14th Judicial District encompassing Routt, Moffat and Grand counties — would not talk about why Prindle was no longer Routt County's chief deputy district attorney because Barkey said he could not discuss personnel matters.
Prindle, who now is looking for a new job, also did not want to talk about why he is no longer working there.
Barkey said there will be a change in the way the Routt County office will be handling future cases under a new chief prosecutor.
"I expect the plea bargains that are offered in this district will come more in line with those that are offered in the other two counties in this district," Barkey said.
Barkey called statistics from recent years concerning when it comes to Routt County, but he would not cite that as a reason for Prindle leaving.
In 2012, Routt County had 162 felony cases and five trials were held. Moffat County had 176 felony cases and 13 trials.
With 109 felony cases in 2013, only one trial has been held. Barkey compared that to Moffat County, which has had 125 felony cases this year and seven trials.
"It at least begins to signal a concern about the kind of plea bargains that have been offered here," Barkey said.
The most recent felony case set for trial was supposed to start Sept. 25. An Oak Creek man had been charged with two felony counts of sexual assault involving a woman as well as two misdemeanor counts of unlawful sexual contact. Unable to prove the case, Prindle offered the man a plea deal where the man pleaded guilty to a single count of misdemeanor harassment. Judge Shelley Hill signed off on the plea deal, and the man was sentenced to three years of unsupervised probation and 48 hours of public service.
Barkey said he would not discuss the case because it would lead to him talking about personnel issues involving Prindle.
With Prindle's departure, there now are two attorney vacancies in the Routt County office. Barkey said he plans to make job offers in the next couple of weeks. In the meantime, Barkey said attorneys from the Grand and Moffat offices would be helping with cases.
Defense attorneys shocked
Hardy-Moore, who was a prosecutor from 1982 to 1990, described Prindle as a very fair prosecutor, and she was sorry to see him go.
"I think Rusty did a very good, balanced job, which is important for a prosecutor to do" she said. "I really don't think Rusty was too lenient."
Prindle's first career was as a police officer in the state of New York. After that, he was the operations manager for one of the largest trucking companies in the country. Prindle was almost 50 years old when he started law school. He said he graduated second in his class of 152 students at Western State University College of Law in California.
He landed his first job as an attorney in Routt County in April 2008.
"I feel most people were supportive of what I was doing," Prindle said. "I felt I was doing what the public wanted me to do."
He said he was fortunate during his time here to have good mentors and fair and reasonable judges.
"I just can't say enough good things about the three judges we have in Routt County and how fortunate we are," Prindle said.
Although they did not always agree, Hammond, who has practiced law in Steamboat for 27 years, said he was sad to see Prindle leave.
"He was a really good man," Hammond said. "He was honest. He was easy to work with. He was reasonable."
Those thoughts were echoed by Randall Salky, another Steamboat defense attorney,
"I thought he was a fantastic asset for their office," Salky said. "He was a great prosecutor to deal with."
To reach Matt Stensland, call 970-871-4247 or email mstensland@SteamboatToday.com