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Michael Allen, El Paso County’s new district attorney, said he doesn’t expect to see a significant rise in plea bargains.

Days after being sworn in, El Paso County’s new district attorney is looking to deliver on his campaign promises.

Michael Allen, a veteran prosecutor who beat out fellow Republican Mark Waller in the primary before an uncontested election in November, said his early moves in office will include launching an animal cruelty unit and bringing more experience to bear on high-profile murder prosecutions, both of which figured into his pitch to voters.

The animal cruelty unit will be staffed by a cadre of prosecutors who will volunteer to handle them on top of their normal duties, a move meant to ensure more consistent outcomes in 4th Judicial District Court, which handles felonies, and El Paso County Court, where misdemeanors are prosecuted, Allen said.

“First and foremost, those are important cases to the community,” he said. “We get more calls on those cases than we get on any other.”

Allen says he is revamping the office’s homicide rotation to quickly assign complex or high-profile homicide cases to the most experienced prosecutors. Under the system set up by his predecessor, 12-year District Attorney Dan May, all homicides were essentially treated the same, assigned by random lottery based on which homicide prosecutor was on call when the crime occurred.

“I don’t really think I’m concerned with building on Dan May’s legacy,” Allen said in an interview. “What I’m concerned about is making sure we’re carrying out our mission, and that is ensuring public safety, doing things the right way and with the right things in mind, all the time.”

When it came to specifying how Allen will differ from May’s approach to more controversial issues, however, he was more reticent.

He declined, for example, to rule out pursuing the death penalty on cases filed prior to July 1, when this year’s statewide death penalty repeal became effective.

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Under May, El Paso County was among a handful of jurisdictions in recent years to pursue capital cases.

Among El Paso County defendants technically eligible for capital punishment is Letecia Stauch, charged with first-degree murder in the January, 2020 slaying of her stepson 11-year-old Gannon Stauch — a case that Allen is personally overseeing.

Allen wouldn't comment on how he will handle individual cases, but said he supports capital punishment in principle.

“My perspective on the death penalty is that it is an effective tool in prosecution and criminal justice,” Allen said. “The fact of the matter is that even if we did pursue a death penalty sentence on a case, it’s … highly likely that the governor would commute it.”

But the law could change with new political leadership, he said in declining to make a “blanket statement.”

“The death penalty can become a viable (option) if the Legislature and governor had that appetite. We can’t talk in absolutes.”

Allen also stopped short of saying the office would curtail May’s use of habitual felon charges — Colorado’s version of a three-strikes law — which can result in tripled or quadrupled penalties against people with multiple prior felonies.

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Defense attorneys complained that the sentence enhancer was misused under May, resulting in lengthy sentences even for nonviolent offenders. In 2013, for example, two people convicted of property crimes including burglarizing an evacuated home during the Waldo Canyon fire were sentenced to 77 years and 48 years in prison, respectively.

Before leaving office, May acknowledged that under his leadership, the 4th Judicial District Attorney’s Office pursued the sentence enhancer more than any other district in the state.

In Allen’s administration, the decision on when to file habitual felon counts is “really going to be driven off of the facts of any given case,” he said.

“It’s not going to be a stats-driven thing,” he said.

Among the challenges facing his first term is the mounting backlog of criminal trials amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Working with judges and defense attorneys to safely resume jury trials is the only way to begin chipping away at the thousands of cases awaiting trial, he said. All trials were halted in the Pikes Peak region in November amid an upswing in coronavirus infections here. Criminal trials are expected to be resumed again beginning in mid-February, and civil trials in March.

Allen said he doesn’t expect to see a significant rise in plea bargains.

His plans for the office also included “really tough decisions” about whom to appoint to leadership positions.

Among those elevated to top roles was Reggy Short, a longtime prosecutor whose family was tied to more than $13,000 in campaign spending to support Allen’s candidacy, much of it in the form of what one political observer likened to “dark money,” The Gazette reported last month. Short's wife and her daughter also work at the DA's Office.

Allen also elevated Andy Vaughan to be the office’s third-in-command, selecting the 11-year prosecutor over other senior prosecutors with many more years of experience, records show.

Short, Vaughan and newly appointed Assistant District Attorney Martha McKinney were all prominent supporters of Allen’s candidacy, though Allen says that had nothing to do with their promotions.

“When I evaluate people for leadership positions, I look at merit, I look at experience, I look at leadership traits and I also look at the willingness to take on the challenge of leadership.”

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He added: “Every single person that applied for a leadership position in my office, I interviewed every single one, and I interviewed them the same way, same exact questions. And then I made some really tough decisions.”

A trust tied to Short’s late mother contributed $12,000 to a pro-Allen independent expenditure group called Citizens for Intelligence Driven Prosecution, which, in turn, financed television ad campaigns supporting Allen and attacking Waller, his rival. The Citizens group spent $14,600 on TV ads, equivalent to more than 20% of the Allen campaign’s $64,000 purse. Allen said he wasn't aware of the group's existence during his campaign, nor of its ties to the Short family. 

Internal documents obtained by the newspaper show that Short will oversee an initiative called Intelligence Driven Prosecution in his new position as chief deputy, the third-highest rank in the office.

Allen said intelligence-driven prosecution is an emerging model pioneered by the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, in which data analysis guides prosecutorial decisions by identifying crime hotspots and prolific offenders.

Here, the initiative is in its “infancy,” however, and hasn’t yet been stood up or fully defined.

Allen denied that Short’s apparent financial support for the Citizens for Intelligence Driven Prosecution played a role in his being assigned to oversee the new unit that shares its name.

“Reggy and I both went to an intelligence-driven prosecution conference at the same time,” Allen said. “We had already started talking about creating a unit like that, and he’s got a very strong analytical mind, so that’s how it comes under Reggy’s umbrella. He’s got a particular skill set, he’s got a particular interest, and it’s something that’s worthwhile.”

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