DENVER (CBS4)– A CBS4 investigation has found thousands of defendants in felony cases are being released from Denver County Court without having to post bond. Court recordings show judges giving zero, $1 or $2 bonds to people charged with violent crimes and long criminal histories.
While most judicial districts in Colorado have a bond schedule with recommended amounts for each level of offense, bond is set at the judge’s discretion.
Public safety is one of the factors they weigh, but our investigation found defendants being released from Denver County Court only to be re-arrested for worse crimes.
When Stephanie Martinez was arraigned for an assault in March of last year no one could have known that she would be arrested two months later for murder. But what the judge did know – or should have known – is that Martinez had a history of violent crime. She’d been convicted of multiple assaults including one she had just received probation for. Still, the judge released her on a Personal Recognizance or PR bond. That meant she didn’t have to post bond, she just had to promise to return for her next court appearance.
A few weeks later, she was arrested for beating an 80-year-old man to death. George Black was feeding the pigeons outside the State Capitol on a Saturday afternoon.
His nephew, John Stewardson, didn’t know about Martinez criminal history until we showed him, “How do you keep letting this person out? When does the hammer come down? When do you say enough is enough?”
CBS4 wondered the same thing after an open records request revealed four thousand cases like Martinez this year alone. The cases involve people charged with felony crimes – including sexual assault of children, vehicular homicide and serious injury assaults – who received no or low bond in Denver County Court. Court recordings we obtained show prosecutors arguing for high bonds in most cases and judges routinely giving low or no bond even when they had reservations.
“This is a tough one because the allegations are concerning so you can see I’ve gone back and forth in my head a few times,” one judge said as she gave Grace Ngochi a PR bond for assault with a deadly weapon.
Amber Mann got a PR bond for assaulting a peace officer. In court, the prosecutor described the violent nature of the assault, “She punched the officer in the eye, causing a black eye, pulled his hair, and bit him.”
But the judge determined Mann was not a threat to public safety, “I appreciate the community safety concerns that are brought to the court’s attention. My biggest concern is the risk Ms. Mann was posing to herself during the alleged incident.”
In the case of Luis Gutierrez-Castro, the judge cited his lack of criminal history in granting a PR bond, and a protection order for his alleged victim. He’s charged with sexually assaulting a child, “I believe the community can be safe if I impose certain conditions.”
The prosecutor pleaded with the judge for a cash bond, “I ask the court to take into consideration the seriousness of the allegations as well as the fear the victim showed when discussing what had occurred.”
Then there’s Ralph Hardy, who has more than 80 felony charges in 9 months and, as the judge noted, a propensity for skipping court, “It looks like you have $52,000 in bonds to post out of Adams County.” He still got a PR bond.
Not everyone gets $0 bonds. Joseph Topping received a $1 bond after being charged with illegal gun possession. The prosecutor detailed a series of crimes Topping had pleaded guilty to over the previous five years and asked for the recommended cash bond.
The judge denied the request, “Mister Topping I’m still willing to give you a shot,” the judge told the defendant as she set bond at $1.
Two months after the hearing, he was arrested for murder.
Denver District Attorney Beth McCann wouldn’t discuss the judges’ decisions but said some people belong behind bars, “We focus on dangerous people, people that we think will be a threat in the community and people we think will not appear in court.”
While PR bonds come with varying levels of supervision, Public Safety Manager Murphy Robinson says, when it comes to violent repeat offenders, he’s not willing to gamble.
“Now that we are aware I have been meeting with Mayor’s office, Governor’s office, the DA’s Office, everyone involved, my own people in probation, to figure out how do we solve for this issue because it is not something that can continue,” said Robinson.
State Senator Rob Woodward is already drafting legislation, “If someone won’t step in on the judicial side, that’s where the legislative side needs to step in and put some bounds on this for the safety of the citizens.”
But it comes too late for citizens like George Black. His nephew had a message for the judge who gave Martinez a PR bond, “I don’t see how you can look somebody in the eye.. who just lost somebody because you had let that person out.”
Denver County Court’s Chief Judge declined a request for an interview. Based on the recordings I reviewed, it’s not just one or two judges giving PR bonds in felony cases. It appears to be common practice in Denver County Court. Director Robinson intends to change that. With one out of every two inmates released from Denver jail reoffending, he says there needs to be more accountability not less.
In states that have eliminated cash bond for misdemeanors, there does not appear to be a corresponding increase in crime. But a study out of Texas found that when judges began giving P-R bonds in felony cases, violent crime rose significantly and so did the recidivism rate.
According to the Colorado District Attorney’s Council, Colorado’s recidivism rate is 50%, the fourth-highest in the country behind Arkansas, Alaska and Delaware.