Editor’s note: As the Alamosa District Attorney election draws near, the Valley Courier is taking a look at both candidates, giving readers the most information before casting their votes. This is the first in a two-part story about interim DA and Republican candidate Anne Kelly.
ALAMOSA – Anne Kelly, recently appointed interim District Attorney for the 12th Judicial District, didn’t start off in life wanting to be a prosecutor. Born as one of four daughters into a conservative family and raised in upstate New York near Lake Ontario, Kelly always wanted to work in law enforcement, specifically the FBI, because she wanted to “help the most vulnerable population,” the “victims of crime.”
For that reason, Kelly majored in criminal justice and Spanish when she attended the University of Albany, a state university in New York. Studying criminal justice was natural, given her interest in the FBI. The choice to study Spanish was foresight on her part, and her fluency was helped by studying abroad in Costa Rica.
“Speaking Spanish has helped me tremendously in my career,” she said. “I’ve been able to speak with witnesses and victims who are Spanish speaking and they’ve found that a comfort — I really love being able to struggle my way through a Spanish conversation.”
Even when she decided to go to law school, working for the FBI remained her focus. But that changed after participating in mock trials in law school.
“I loved being a trial attorney,” she says.
Kelly ventures to Colorado
After graduating from law school, Kelly worked in litigation in New York, but she “couldn’t get out of that fast enough.” She had always felt drawn to the “wide open spaces of the west.” So, in 2007, she came to Denver. Despite the high cost of living and paying off student loans, she “financially finagled” her situation so that she could afford to work as a prosecutor, starting off with the DA’s office in Arapahoe County.
While working in the 18th Judicial District, Kelly developed a deep passion for the “fascinating, really difficult and challenging dynamics” of domestic violence cases. That passion motivated her to create the 18th Judicial District’s Domestic Violence Unit, which led her to get “a ton of trial experience.” It also contributed to her feeling “burned out.”
Kelly left the 18th Judicial District to go into private practice but, even though the income was a lot more lucrative, she soon learned something that confirmed what she now believes is true.
“I was called to be a prosecutor and called to seek justice for victims,” she said.
Knowing that about herself has guided her life since then.
Kelly returned to prosecution in Weld County as the Senior Deputy for the District Attorney in the 19th Judicial District where she “tried a lot of very serious cases.” But her passion continued to be prosecuting domestic violence cases.
“When we talk about justice, some cases are really black and white,” Kelly said, citing, as an example a person’s house being burglarized by an offender who is a stranger to them.
The victim feels “terrified and violated” and should have a strong prosecutor to prosecute their case, she says.
“What is more challenging, interesting and takes a really skilled prosecutor is to understand that victimization in domestic violence is a lot more gray and a lot more complicated,” she said.
Kelly has gained perspective from prosecuting
Kelly has devoted herself to “learning and understanding” as much as she can about the dynamics of domestic violence. Offenders of domestic violence do not use only violence to coerce and control their victims. They use jealousy, stalking-type behaviors, threatening and gaslighting behaviors — telling victims they’re terrible one day and then telling them they love them and threatening to commit suicide if they leave, she says.
“It was important to me to understand those dynamics because those are some of our most vulnerable victims who are caught in a cycle of power and control,” Kelly said.
Prosecutors don’t really love to prosecute those cases, Kelly said, because, sometimes, the dynamics in domestic violence lead to victims not wanting their cases to go forward, putting prosecutors in a dilemma because they acknowledge what the victim is saying but have an obligation to hold that offender accountable.
“That presents a real challenge for me, but there are times when a victim will call me and say, ‘thank you so much for prosecuting that when I really didn’t want you to, thank you so much for standing up for me,’” she said.
“That’s very satisfying and gratifying to me because that’s what really prosecution is about – standing up for victims.”
Kelly does more than prosecutes, she strives to lead
Kelly loved Weld County and its agricultural feel but, when a senior prosecutor position opened up in Boulder, she jumped at the opportunity, primarily because of the DA, Michael Dougherty, whom she describes as “nuanced.”
“There are a lot of soundbites about who we should be prosecuting as criminals and who we should be helping,” she said, “But what is really necessary is a prosecutor who will look at each case individually.
“There can’t be any bright line rules about how we administer justice and a good prosecutor — a good leader — has the experience to make those judgment calls. There’s a lot of room for criminal justice reform, and I support programs like diversion and restorative justice because I think those programs work. At the same time, you need a strong leader who prosecutes to the full extent of the law people who cause real damage.”
A community that does not have a strong prosecutor frequently also has a co-existing level of poverty, a combination that, Kelly said, makes the lack of prosecution even more impactful. That community ends up feeling victimized twice – once by the criminal and a second time by “watching the guy who shot at their son walking down the street the next day.”
“So the effects of poverty become that much more debilitating,” Kelly said. “Not only do we not have enough resources, our leaders aren’t protecting us. That can be very isolating.”
That combination of being a strong, aggressive prosecutor who also uses restorative justice and diversion in cases where that’s what is most appropriate was found in DA Dougherty, whom Kelly says was an inspiration, her mentor and taught her a great deal.
Kelly had “no intentions” of leaving Boulder. She was working for a “tremendous boss” and had started a Domestic Violence Unit that is going strong. But that all changed when she was asked to come to the San Luis Valley to help out.
“This will sound corny and I don’t intend for it to sound that way but when I came down for two weeks as a prosecutor, understanding what my role is and understanding that being a prosecutor is an important job, but I don’t know that any prosecutor could see what was happening here and not do everything in their power to help,” she said.
“It has never been more clear to me how important our job is. Where I come from and other places where I’ve worked, there’s a cushion. If you screw up, there’s someone who has your back and there are systems in place to catch you.
“There’s nothing here. The victims have only the prosecutors to rely on and when the victims are ignored, it touches the soul of a prosecutor. I’m not alone in this. Others who came here have felt the same way.”
Kelly says she “couldn’t just walk away.”
She kept on waiting for someone to step up and apply for the job but “no one was.”
Due to being on her own, Kelly had the “structural freedom” to come to the valley when others didn’t.
“(After) processing through the logistics and the fact that I can do this, there was no way that I couldn’t do this. It just touched too close to my soul,” she said.
Kelly said she doesn’t like the idea of campaigning or being a politician, which the job obviously requires. And she recognizes all the things that need to be done.
“But I know that I can do it,” Kelly said. “I know that sounds conceited, but I can do what needs to be done.”
Part two of Kelly’s story will appear in Tuesday’s edition of the Valley Courier. Two stories on Democratic nominee Bob Willett will appear at a later date.