Opinion: Look for sense in legal fight

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By Patience Kabwasa

In August, Sen. Pete Lee, D-Colorado Springs, was indicted on one count of providing false information about his residence, a Class 5 felony, after Republican El Paso County District Attorney Michael Allen presented evidence to a grand jury. The allegation was that two years ago, Lee violated the voter residence law by voting in a district in which he did not reside. 

The charge was unrelated to Lee’s official duties and, as it turned out, was not based on fact. A DA’s investigator unknowingly presented inaccurate evidence to the grand jury, leading to Lee’s indictment, and District Court Judge Eric Bentley dismissed the criminal charge in late October.

Other legislators have run into similar trouble with residence requirements. Sen. Dennis Hisey, R-SD2, is still under investigation over allegations he illegally voted in the Republican primary election by claiming a district of residence where he didn’t actually live.

When the charge against Lee was announced, his defense attorneys immediately said the case would be “vigorously challenged,” and in the end, both sides agreed that the residency information originally provided to prosecutors by the Colorado Office of Attorney Regulation Counsel was wrong. 

No doubt this criminal case has been a heavy burden for Sen. Lee, his family and supporters over the past few months, and a needless distraction for his constituents. It’s not only a wasteful distraction, but an irony, that Sen. Lee was dragged into a criminal case like this. He has been an incredibly effective and active legislator in the fight for criminal justice reform. In his 12 years of service, he has authored, co-authored and passed numerous bills spanning areas including criminal justice systems and legal reforms, restorative justice, judicial accountability, child care, wildfire mitigation, environmental and business protections — and he has worked across the aisle to do so. 

More than a few people have argued the criminal case against Lee was politically motivated, and a misuse of power — but at least Lee had the resources (money, publicity, supporters) to draw media attention, retain counsel and push back against the charge. How many people without the same privilege face similarly unjust charges, but never see them dismissed? Will we ever know that number?

In an op-ed written before the case against Lee was dismissed, former Councilor Richard Skorman said despite the fact it was already public knowledge that the grand jury was given inaccurate information, “…D.A. Allen is still unwilling to revisit this travesty of justice. His actions appear to me and many others to be motivated by partisan politics and possibly revenge — both tools that should never be used for a felony indictment.” 

Lee’s case ended in dismissal, but many others who have experienced injustice at the hands of the state may have a different story. Either their lives have been ruined or given over to the Department of Corrections — or both. 

Sen. Lee has a long track record of fighting for these people, and fighting to reform our criminal justice system. Now that he’s felt the weight of it on his own shoulders, I hope it will only increase his empathy, compassion, voice and passion for fighting injustice, even as he approaches retirement. 

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