District attorney mulls second term despite critics
By David Grant Long
Editors's note: The several attorneys and law-enforcement officers who agreed to comment for this story did so under condition of anonymity, since they must work closely with the District Attorney’s office in trying to deliver criminal justice in the 22nd Judicial District, and believe that being identified might hinder that end.
Republican District Attorney Joe Olt is mum for now about whether he’ll seek a second term next fall, but presently there is no one in either party who has expressed an interest in replacing him.
“I don’t think anyone really wants this job except some fool like me,” Olt joked during a recent interview, adding that in truth he loves his work..
“My decision is due for the party in April,” Olt said, “but I won’t be telling anybody what I’m doing until then.”
Both political parties will hold county assemblies in April, during which candidates for the district attorney’s position will be nominated, if such candidates come forth.
However, Olt is widely expected to run again, with or without opposition.
Still, many of both political persuasions – from law enforcement to criminal defense lawyers – who fervently wish someone else would step up to the plate.
Learning on the job?
Elected in the 22nd Judicial District in 2000, Olt is accused by his detractors of being an incompetent prosecutor with an offensive courtroom manner and a sparse record of convictions.
During his first election campaign, Olt vowed that if he won the office he would “know criminal law and be ready to take cases in 10 weeks,” according to an Oct. 27, 2000, interview with the Cortez Journal – even though he had virtually no experience in criminal prosecution or defense at that time.
However, Olt now concedes that was an major overstatement.
“I vastly underrated the necessity for the job,” he said. “I am now – what I believe, at least -- beginning to be a competent prosecutor.
“(The job) was way more than I expected,” he added, “but I feel confident about it now after seeing what I had to do, and have been doing.”
But many lawyers familiar with Olt’s track record take a strikingly different view.
“I think he’s a very poor DA,” said one local attorney with many years of experience in criminal cases. “He’s very inexperienced, first of all. He never practiced criminal law before he became the district attorney other than doing some minor matters.
“And he has not gained a lot of knowledge on the job, and part of the reason for that is because he doesn’t have a lot of cases – he has his deputies handle everything, so he’s not learning through the work itself.”
Beyond that, the attorney said, Olt doesn’t provide much training for his deputies, so “they’re often figuring things out as they go with little supervision.”
This critic also said Olt is “very erratic in his philosophies – he changes week by week on how he wants to handle things and just doesn’t have a very consistent approach to criminal prosecution and plea-bargaining.
“Right now I’m hearing he’s saying there’s not going to be any more plea-bargaining.”
Other attorneys also take dim views of Olt’s abilities.
“The two biggest shortcomings (in his performance) are all the felony cases that are filed that aren’t truly felonies – it’s like he’s trying to build his numbers up – and end up getting dismissed or lowered to misdemeanors,” said one defense lawyer. “If you looked at court records, you’d see an awesome trail there.”
Yet another agreed that Olt often “overcharges” defendants with offenses that may not be provable, in order to have more ammunition for plea bargains.
“That’s common with prosecutors,” the attorney said. “You load people up if (the evidence) is there, but often times you look at his cases and it’s not there. And they have an ethical duty to just try cases for which there’s probable cause.”
Olt often has cases dismissed before they go to trial because the evidence isn't there, according to another defense attorney, and he doesn’t work with police to shore the cases up with additional investigation.
“There’s no follow-up like that whatsoever,” the attorney said. “They’ll just look at things on the face – they don’t know a good case from a bad one.”
But Olt called these accusations “totally false.”
“We’ve charged what we thought we could prove in court,” he said. “Now, we have charged cases as strictly as we can with probable cause to bring those charges, and for all of the heavy charges we have done, I think we only lost one or two preliminary hearings we didn’t have evidence for.
“We’ve had evidence for every charge we’ve ever brought, of course.”
Addressing the frequent frustrations of law-enforcement officers who bring evidence of crimes to the district attorney’s office only to have no action taken, Olt said, “that’s a possibility.”
“The possibility there comes from the fact that the charges were too weak to bring to court,” he said. “In some cases the evidence is there, but it’s just not enough to bring to it to the court.
“We only get so many shots at the court,” he added. “In fact, I imagine the most we could ever do is about 20 cases a year. We only have one (district court) judge, so we have a real tough time getting into the court for trials.”
In his interview with the Journal, however, Olt pledged his office would have 20 cases ready to go to court each week.
The second problem mentioned by one of the above attorneys was that the district attorney’s office “can’t win a jury trial to save their souls.”
“It’s abysmal – nationwide, prosecutors win like 85 percent of jury trials,” the attorney said. “I think with Joe it’s reversed – probably 15 percent, if that.”
Olt challenged this assertion, however.
“We don’t keep a scorecard,” he said, “We don’t have a winning/losing record – what we have is the idea of justice.
“What we try to do is make people accountable for their actions,” he said. “Our job is to bring them to court successfully – that doesn’t mean to have them found guilty. The jury and judge are the tryers of fact.
“I think we’re very successful in getting justice,” he added. “We’re not losing a lot of cases.”
Even though his deputies prosecute the majority of cases that do go to trial, Olt’s courtroom style has also been criticized as overly dramatic. In the case of a minor who was charged with reckless driving in a fatal accident, for instance, Olt seemed to chhoke up and cry at one point while presenting his case.
“It’s terrible,” one attorney said. “He wants the focus on him as opposed to the focus being on the case. He does a lot of showmanship stuff in there that is absolutely unnecessary.
“He parades himself around – everything he does is to draw attention to Joseph W – and frankly I think it detracts from his ability to try a case.
“The juries don’t give a s--- about Joe Olt – they want the facts.”
‘Plea bargains with teeth’
Asked to assess his overall performance on the job, Olt pointed to his accomplishments. “The only way you can rate a performance like this, especially personally, is to say I’ve met all but one of my campaign promises,” he said, “and that’s (establishing) the juvenile court.”
He is proud of the fact that a drug court is up and running.
“We have been able to get the drug court off the ground,” he added, stressing that this was a cooperative effort of the judicial system and law enforcement.
In the Journal article during his campaign, Olt also pledged to make only “plea bargains with teeth,” and fewer of them. But others say that hasn’t been the case:
“To me the most damning thing is the number of felonies charged that are pled out to nothing and the number of cases that are charged and then dropped,” said one attorney.
In response, Olt cited two examples of what he considers tough plea-bargaining. One involved the murder of a gay teenager whose head was bashed in with a rock.. His killer, Shaun Murphy, who bragged about beating up a “fag,” was originally charged with felony murder, a charge that carried a possible sentence of life imprisonment. The case was settled by the defendant pleading guilty to second-degree murder.
“We had a shaky case on the felony murder,” Olt said, “but we did have a solid second-degree murder. The total he could have gotten for second-degree was 48 years – he got 40. So that was a successful plea bargain – there are hundreds and hundreds of them.”
The other example Olt offered involved a highly intoxicated driver who last August sped through a red light at Mildred and Main in Cortez, killing the teenage driver of another vehicle and seriously injuring her passenger. Travis Lopez fled but was run down by police a short time later.
Lopez had been charged with four felonies, including one count of vehicular homicide-DUI and one count of vehicular assault-DUI, to which he pleaded guilty in December. The plea bargain guarantees that any sentences he receives for those two crimes on Feb. 17 will run concurrently (at the same time), rather than sequentially, meaning Lopez will have to serve only the prison time for the more serious crime. (It is up to the judge as to which way prison sentences will be served.)
In return for Lopez’s guilty plea, two additional felony counts of vehicular assault were dropped along with a host of traffic charges, including DUI, driving while his license was revoked for a previous alcohol offense, leaving the scene of an accident involving death, speeding more than 25 mph over the limit and no proof of insurance.
His sentence could range from probation to a maximum of 12 years in prison, or 24 years if the judge finds aggravated circumstances on the most serious charge.
“Dropping charges seems like we’re giving away the farm,” Olt said, “but in reality what happens is the court sentences – normally – concurrently, and that means that anything he’s sentenced to at the same time, so he only does the same amount of time.
“So dropping a charge, for instance a lesser charge, the sentence would be moved into the other sentence and he wouldn’t be serving that at any rate.”
Olt said that any information contained in the dropped charges would still be considered at Lopez's sentencing.
“It’s not like it’s washed away and nobody talks about it again,” he said. “The judge is allowed to take that into consideration.”
Yet another of his critics with a lengthy history of trial work insists Olt’s handling of felony cases is “terrible.
“I can’t say anything good about him,” said this lawyer.
The weak link
When he ran for office, Olt accused his predecessor, Mike Green, of being the weak link in the county’s criminal-justice system:
“Right now there is no accountability because offenders aren’t worried about their cases going to court,” he was quoted in the Journal while referring to Green’s tenure. “We have great cops and a really decent court system, but our district attorney’s office is the weakness in the middle.”
However, police as well as attorneys maintain this is exactly the problem they’re facing now with Olt in charge.
“As far as his ability to prosecute, it’s not real good,” said one law-enforcement officer. It has become common knowledge that relations between Olt’s office and local police agencies are strained, and that they resent him arriving at crime scenes wearing a gun, along with his references to being the “top cop.”
But Olt said he’s only gone to crime scenes when asked to by police.
“We used to get called out a lot more – recently we haven’t
been called out much -- but, yes, I’ll go to any one I’m called
out to,” he said. “We don’t stomp on their territory.”
As far as the “top cop” designation, Olt said he couldn’t remember referring to himself that way.
“It could be, but I’m not sure,” he said. “Now what that means is not that I’m a police officer out on the streets arresting people, although I’m allowed to do that by statute. I leave that to the professionals.
“When I say ‘top cop,’ I’m the one the police have to bring their information to, to bring it before the judge.”
Olt usually carries a handgun strapped to his side, a practice that led District Judge Sharon Hansen to forbid attorneys to enter her courtroom with weapons, so he now deposits it in a locker outside.
“What the hell’s he doing packing heat all the time?” asked one critic who sees the practice as grandstanding.
“What I do is a dangerous job,” Olt explained, mentioning two prosecutors back East who were killed recently. “Carrying a firearm is for self-defense, and that’s exactly why I carry one.”
Also, there have been threats made against his family, he said. “I don’t know if they’re related or not, but they weren’t there before I got into office. It’s not really serious accosting, but I’ve had people say things to my family, and also perpetrators know where I live – this is a small town.
“Everybody old enough in my family carries,” he said, including his wife and son.
Another criticism leveled against Olt is the high turnover among his deputies.
“The one thing that points up his weaknesses, the greatest of all, is the massive turnover of personnel in his office,” said one lawyer who deals with the office regularly. “People don’t stay with him.”
He said rather than leading, Olt pushes his employees unmercifully, and that several have quit or been fired over the past three years because of harsh treatment.
The high turnover causes problems in Olt’s office, the attorney said, such as complaints that he doesn’t always comply with the rules of discovery, which require that each side in a criminal case make known to the other what witnesses it will call and what evidence it has.
Olt’s office has been criticized for letting cases come to court without providing the defense the evidence it should have.
The attorney said he is so used to that happening, he routinely asks for continuances. “That’s what I do now. I don’t make a big issue out of it, I just ask for a continuance.”
Some defense lawyers see Olt’s shortcomings as a break for their clients.
“Most of the defense attorneys around here are licking their chops,” one said. “(Olt’s) supposed to be a trial lawyer, but he doesn’t have a clue what the rules of evidence are about.”
But another attorney disagreed that most local lawyers are happy about Olt.
“We are still citizens of the community,” the attorney said, “and he sickens us all – we’re disgusted with what we’re seeing.”
“The legal community is very, very interested in this issue,” he said, “because many people think he’s beatable and they would like to see him thrown out.”