A career prosecutor with 12 years’ experience, District Attorney Russell Wasley is ready and eager to serve citizens of the 22nd Judicial District for another term.
And despite failing to make the ballot during the county’s Republican assembly on Feb. 24, Wasley was not deterred, garnering the required 869 signatures in six weeks’ time to petition onto the June 26 ballot.
At press time, the signatures still had to be confirmed by the Colorado Secretary of State, but Wasley is confident voters will have the chance to vote him in for another term.
He will face Republican William Furse in the June 26 Republican primary election, which will decide the race because there is no Democratic challenger.
“I’m optimistic that I’ll be on the ballot, and then it is up to the voters,” Wasley said during an interview.
Wasley, 55, worked with former DA Jim Wilson until his death in a motorcycle crash in May 2010. Gov. Bill Ritter appointed Democrat Mac Myers to complete Wilson’s term, and Wasley left the office. Then Wasley defeated Myers in the fall 2010 election.
Warming up to his passion for prosecution, Wasley speaks earnestly in an unassuming, straightforward way about his successes putting violent criminals behind bars.
“During the 2010 election, I promised voters justice for habitual offenders and career criminals, and I believe that I have accomplished that,” Wasley said. “For habitual felons, we were able to use Colorado enhancement statutes to get tougher sentences, and that is an appropriate and effective tool for prosecutors.”
For instance, someone committing a felony after three prior felonies can receive a sentence of four times what would otherwise be the maximum.
He said his track record shows that he is willing to go to trial to convict individuals who commit the most heinous violent crimes. In 2009, Wasley and then-DA Wilson successfully convicted Ignacio Rael during a trial for the second-degree murder of Rael’s girlfriend, Diane Cordova, in 2008.
“The victim was physically beaten to death, and we got the maximum sentence of 48 years for Mr. Rael,” Wasley said. “That was an extraordinarily serious and tragic case.”
Wasley handled the successful convictions of two men who robbed the Cortez Giant Convenience store March 31, 2011.
“Those cases did not end up in a plea bargain, they went to trial, and one offender went to the department of corrections for 14 years and the younger of the two was sent to the youth offender system.”
DAs are often criticized for offering too many plea bargains for offenders. Wasley explained that some plea-bargaining is necessary because it is impossible to send every case to a jury trial.
“I wish there were enough weeks in the year to take more cases to a jury trial, but given that we filed approximately 240 felonies in 2011, there has to be some plea-bargaining because there are not enough judges or prosecutors to try every case,” Wasley said.
Wasley said for violent crimes, when he does offer a plea bargain it contains stiff penalties.
“For example, we recently had an individual who pled to attempted second-degree murder, and his sentencing range will be between 18 and 20 years in prison. Also another individual recently pled guilty to first-degree burglary and that agreement has a sentence of 20 years. So, when a tough plea bargain with a stiff sentence is accepted by a defendant they are taken out of the community for a significant length of time. That guaranteed result protects the community.”
Wasley said the 22nd Judicial District is one of the smallest offices in the state, but the area has a heavy case-load. In 2011, he said, the office handled approximately 2,000 cases, including 240 felonies, 700 misdemeanors, more than 1,000 traffic cases and at least 60 juvenile cases.
A chronic problem in this area is methamphetamine use and crimes associated with it such as trafficking, burglary and violence. Controlling the craze for the illegal drug requires a dedicated effort, Wasley said.
“Meth is an extremely serious and dangerous drug, it is a poison and people who sell, or possess it with intent to distribute will be rigorously prosecuted and that is a focus of our office,” he said.
Pursuing additional funding outside the county budget and seeking extra help from the attorney general for serious crimes is key for rural districts to be more successful, he said.
His office applied for grants from the Department of Justice to hire an additional prosecutor and investigator specializing in sexual-assault cases. “We try and take advantage of everything we can to make sure we have appropriate staffing, because with a growing case-load anything I can do to create more prosecutorial resources on behalf of our community, that is a good thing,” he said.
Although he would not comment on the murder of Jonathan Hayes, who was found dead Jan. 14 near Dolores, Wasley noted that he reached out to the attorney general’s office for assistance because of their expertise in prosecuting homicides.
“We are proud to have help from a highly experienced assistant attorney general in this case, and there is no charge,” he said. “I am not ego-driven, I am a fairly modest person, so I think it is important to recognize that rural DA’s offices should make use of whatever resources are available.”