Denver Post, Rocky Mountain News omitted key information about anti-Ritter attack ad

››› ››› MEDIA MATTERS STAFF

Articles in The Denver Post and Rocky Mountain News reported that a radio ad by the conservative Trailhead Group suggested that as state prosecutor, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Bill Ritter was soft on crime because he plea-bargained 97 percent of his cases. But both articles failed to inform readers that the plea-agreement percentage cited for Ritter was similar to the national average; 95 percent of state court felony convictions and 96 percent of federal criminal convictions are obtained through plea agreements.

In a July 18 article, Denver Post staff writer Karen E. Crummy reported that in a recent radio ad attacking Democratic gubernatorial candidate Bill Ritter, the conservative Trailhead Group "suggest[ed] that as prosecutor, Ritter was soft on crime because he plea-bargained 97 percent of his cases." Similarly, in a July 1 article, Rocky Mountain News reporter Michael Malik reported that the ad "suggests Ritter is soft on crime because, during his years as Denver district attorney, he plea-bargained 97 percent of his cases." Both articles failed to inform readers that the plea-agreement percentage cited for Ritter was similar to the national average. According to data from the Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), 95 percent of state court felony convictions and 96 percent of federal criminal convictions are obtained through plea agreements.

According to the most recent edition of the BJS' Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics, in 2000 -- the most recent year for which data is available -- 95 percent of all state felony convictions were obtained through plea agreements. Similarly, the Sourcebook reported that in 2003, 72,110 of 74,850 federal criminal convictions (96 percent) resulted from a "[p]lea of guilty or nolo contendere."

Further, in his July 1 News article, Malik repeated the ad's charge that "Ritter even plea-bargained with murderers" but did not address the context of any such plea bargains. By contrast, a June 30 Associated Press article described two examples cited by Trailhead executive director Alan Philp in which Ritter had "plea-bargained with murderers":

Philp points to several cases to back up the ad's claims. Among them was the case of Jeremiah Barnum, who pleaded guilty to accessory to murder in the high-profile shooting death of an African immigrant in 1997. But the plea deal came after Barnum's initial conviction for first-degree murder was overturned because a judge determined some evidence had been improperly admitted.

Philp also pointed to the case of Richard Paul White, who pleaded guilty to killing two women and sexually assaulting three other women. He also is serving life in prison without the possibility of parole. At the time, Ritter said he chose not to seek the death penalty because he believed it could not have been properly imposed due to White's childhood history of psychological and sexual abuse. Two other prosecutors in Colorado counties where White said he had hidden bodies had also said they would not seek the death penalty.

The Trailhead Group is a conservative nonprofit organization founded by Colorado Gov. Bill Owens (R), former Republican Senate candidate Pete Coors, and Bruce Benson, the former chairman of the Colorado Republican Party.

From Crummy's July 18 Denver Post article, "GOP puts $500,000 in state's guv race":

[Bob] Beauprez (R-Arvada), a congressman, faces Democrat Bill Ritter, a former Denver district attorney. Under campaign finance laws, Trailhead cannot contribute any of the RGA [Republican Governors Association] money directly to Beauprez. It can, however, spend it on radio and TV ads, campaign mailings and get-out-the-vote efforts supporting him.

The group recently made hundreds of thousands of robocalls to voters statewide criticizing Ritter's position on immigration. And two weeks ago, the group put up a radio ad suggesting that as prosecutor, Ritter was soft on crime because he plea-bargained 97 percent of his cases.

From Malik's July 1 Rocky Mountain News article, "Ad attacks Ritter's record":

The Trailhead Group once again is attacking Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Bill Ritter.

The group released a radio ad Friday that suggests Ritter is soft on crime because, during his years as Denver district attorney, he plea-bargained 97 percent of his cases.

Ritter's campaign says the ad is a distortion of the facts and that Ritter was a tough prosecutor.

"Ritter even plea-bargained with murderers and convicted sex offenders," the ad says. "He supported legislation to reduce prison sentences for serious drug abusers -- and failed to enforce the death penalty for capital crimes."

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