Denver Bar Association
November 2004
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Goodbye? Hello? Bill Ritter!

by Diane Hartman

 

Bill Ritter
On the giant chess board that is Colorado politics right now, the highly-regarded Denver District Attorney Bill Ritter is poised to jump, as he term limits out in January.

He won’t speculate on a landing place, but "public service" comes up often in the same paragraph with "political office."

Ritter, 48, has had a run of 11 ½ years, winning elections in ’94, ’96 and 2000. He so obviously loves what he’s doing right now and will miss it. One afternoon, he was still hyped up after "working with different lawyers on an unsolved murder case. We’re close to breaking it." He said he would miss "working with the staff, working on the right thing to do. This job challenges your intellect and your moral direction. Doing the right thing is not always easy. I’ve appreciated the fact that, after getting input from gifted attorneys, I’m the final arbiter. . . . The best thing is just the notion of being involved with a group of colleagues who are bent on trying to do justice every day in every case."

He added: "You’re constantly doing something that makes a difference in the lives of people and in the quality of life for the community. It’s a fascinating story every five minutes."

The stories are often funny—"you HAVE to have a sense of humor to work here."

Once he was questioning a witness, using a Vietnamese translator, when the translator got Charlie Horses in both legs. "I had to massage his legs in front of the jury so he could go back to translating. . . . you do what you have to do."

He remembers when (now Judge) John McMullen was a prosecutor, trying a robbery case where identification was an issue. "He asked the witness to ID the robber, and instead of IDing the young Hispanic defendant, he ID’d me. The jury convicted the defendant anyway."

His hardest case was trying Ronald Garner in 1985, for three separate murders. In the course of prosecuting and convicting him, he got the law changed about what could be admitted as other transactions evidence. "I got pneumonia during the trial; I don’t think I’ve ever been so emotionally and physically drained."

Fun Facts About Your Out-going DA:

• He worked construction to pay for law school.
• He’s one of 12—count ‘em—12 children!
• He and his wife “aren’t big on housecleaning.”
• He exercises three to four times a week.
• He and his family lived in Zambia for three years.

 

Ritter is used to many kinds of hard work. He did construction to put himself through CSU, and CU Law School. His first ambition was to be a labor lawyer, and he belonged to local 720 in Denver, but after interning at the Denver DA’s office, "I never looked back." There he ran into his first and best mentor, Brooke Wunnicke: "She was a big influence in how I wrote and how I thought. She defined for me the way every lawyer should practice law." The DA then was Dale Tooley. Ritter remembered one case in his first three or four months that had political ramifications. "Dale said ‘Politics be dammed. Do the right thing’."

Wunnicke thinks the world of Ritter: "He’s exceptionally competent, a very able trial lawyer of total integrity. . . . I hope he can find an area where he can continue his public service."

Ritter, born in 1956, is one of 12 children, and now his parents have 34 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren. Bill and Jeannie, his wife of 21 years, have provided them with four—August, 18, a freshman at CSU; Abraham, 16, a junior at Mullen; Sam, 14 (who was named after Samuel Adams beer one night at the Pearl Street Grille) and Natalie, 11, both in school at Our Lady of Lourdes.

They’ve tried to raise the kids in as normal an atmosphere as possible, he said. They try to eat dinner together most nights; typical mealtime topics could be what somebody should be for Halloween or what someone should wear for homecoming. "There’s lots of adolescent and pre-adolescent conversation; all are active in sports and academics." Ritter said they don’t have a lot of rules. "Our biggest failing is that we aren’t big on housecleaning. We want to write a book called ‘When Messy People Breed.’ But our house is open. We have someone staying with us almost all the time—maybe a relative who needs a basement for a while, a kid whose parent had a drug problem stayed with us for a couple of years, right now there’s a lady waiting to pass the bar. We’re pretty flexible—it’s like a 24-hour open house."

The Ritters "do a lot of talking" about dating, drugs, violence, etc. with their children; there have been some "groundings," but few discipline problems. "They’ve watched the children of other public figures who have goofed up; they know it could become public and be an embarrassment. But we don’t dwell on that."

Ritter tries to work out three or four times a week—biking, fishing, skiing on occasion: "I try to find a way to be outdoors." He has several close friends, "not a wide circle." For many years, he was actively trying cases—"it’s important to be in good physical shape. You need to limit the number of negative coping mechanisms you use!" The Ritter TV is rarely on, especially not in the evening hours. Football on the weekends is another matter.

A startling part of Ritter’s resumé is the three years that he and his wife and children spent in Mongu, Zambia, where he was coordinator of the Mongu Nutrition Group. An underlying reason for their move is that Jeannie had been a Peace Corps volunteer and going overseas to do "development work" in the Third World was a shared dream. Rittter didn’t want to pass up working in the DA’s office, but when there was an opportunity to be a lay missionary, he felt called. There, he learned practical skills and witnessed "the grace and hope of the Zambian people . . . we saw all the issues that people who live in Third World poverty struggle with, including significant malnutrition, tropical diseases without adequate health care and we saw the early devastation of the AIDS pandemic making its mark. . . . in spite of that, it was a rich experience that I would not trade for the world."

Everyone seems to agree that Ritter is a principled man. As people play the game about what he’ll do next, some say his anti-abortion stand, as a Democrat, could hurt him politically. "You know, I can’t put how I feel about that in a quick sound bite. My agenda is not to overturn Roe v. Wade, but I do think about the issue the way a lot of conservatives do. I can articulate it in
a 30-minute conversation, but it’s more difficult in a campaign. I have been told that this issue wouldn’t loom the way it has in the past."

Even someone who could be his arch rival—Charlie Garcia, Denver’s Public Defender—has only good words to say about Ritter. "We’ve been friends forever. He’s the most straightforward DA I’ve ever known. He’s fair and he’s concerned about the ethics of the people in his shop."

When asked what law he’d like to see changed, Ritter said: "I think as a nation and state and city, we have to figure out what we’re going to do about drug use, abuse and trafficking. I think it’s appropriate to incarcerate people involved in the drug trade. But we should ask ourselves what we might do differently about people who are addicts and abusers. If there’s a way to maintain public safety but doesn’t spend state resources incarcerating those who are only abusers, that’s an area we need to think about. I have so much respect for our Denver Court bench. However, I think the way we were operating the drug court before was the right way. I know our courts are again getting overwhelmed with cases involving drugs."


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