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Meet Denver’s New District Attorney: Beth McCann

Beth McCann has made a career of breaking gender barriers, and she did so again this past November when she was elected to be Denver’s first female district attorney. One year after her historic victory, what’s next for the trailblazer?

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The security line at Denver’s Wellington E. Webb Municipal Office Building is starting to back up, but the crowd is boisterous nonetheless. Once people pass through the metal detector, they hurry to the building’s atrium, where most of the seats are already filled. Attendees stand against the walls, scan the room, and wave to familiar faces, all while balancing bunched-up winter coats, briefcases, and purses. Sunlight pours into the space and highlights a few lines of poetry etched into a wall. They were written by Thomas Hornsby Ferril, one of Colorado’s poet laureates: You didn’t know you came to make a city, Nobody knows when a city’s going to happen.

On January 10, 2017, Ferril’s couplet seems fitting as Beth McCann, Denver’s first female district attorney, is sworn into office. The merrymakers are there to celebrate the momentous occasion, even though many in the crowd had hoped they’d also commemorate the inauguration of the country’s first female president the same month. The audience buzzes with what if, what went wrong, and at least we have Beth discussions.

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Other conversations center on Mitch Morrissey, whom McCann will replace. There’s plenty of praise—in the room and around the city—for how Morrissey spearheaded the use of DNA in Denver courtrooms and for his commitment to the Rose Andom Center, which helps domestic violence victims. But others are jubilant the city will have a new top prosecutor for the first time in 12 years. There’s hope that the new DA will bring charges in police-officer-involved shootings (something Morrissey, who was term-limited, was criticized for not doing); that the department will be more accessible and accountable to the community; and that McCann will find a balance between being tough on crime and also being aware of long-standing societal biases that contribute to racial disparities in the criminal justice system.

Today, 68-year-old McCann is onstage and watching the scene with a bright but controlled smile. The expression doesn’t appear practiced, like politicians’ sometimes do, but rather earned. And that’s because she’s spent decades working toward this moment. Her longtime friend and retired judge, Ann Frick, steps up to the microphone and outlines McCann’s spirit: She describes a woman who runs five miles and then does 20 minutes of abdominal work while watching The Wire. She talks about a person so driven she constantly over-prepares, even for book club (the group is in attendance and cheers in agreement).

When Mayor Michael Hancock speaks, he references the Pledge of Allegiance’s assurance of justice for all. He talks about how important it is for the DA to be involved in the community. “I think your election is a result of people simply saying it’s time for new air,” he says. Seemingly nonplussed by the pressure, McCann takes her oath to support the U.S. and Colorado constitutions and faithfully perform the duties of the office. The room quiets as she thanks the crowd for attending and calls out dignitaries in the audience, like the practiced public speaker she is. “I ran for this office because I believe in the work that we do here in the DA’s office to keep the city safe and represent the people of our city to the best of our abilities,” she says. She pauses before adding one of her characteristic “but” statements. “But I also ran because I believe the district attorney’s office can be more than just an office that prosecutes criminals. We can be leaders in the prevention of crime, and we can be leaders that provide an alternative to incarceration in appropriate circumstances.” It’s an expansive and bold goal, one that the room doesn’t seem surprised to hear. After all, this is what McCann has wanted to do since the beginning.

When you ask McCann why she moved to the West, like so many transplants she is speechless for a moment. There is just something special about this place, she says. The mountains. The space. The people. To her younger self, the West appeared less tied up in traditional expectations than her home state of Virginia. This seemed like a place where women could work outside of the home and make an impact.

Beth McCann
McCann in 1983, when she was Denver’s chief deputy DA. Photo by Ed Maker/The Denver Post via Getty Images

McCann, who was born in 1949, was used to moving around. Her father, an Army colonel, was stationed in Japan and Taiwan during her childhood. As a teenager back in the States, she knew she wanted a career, an ambition that was bolstered after reading feminist authors such as Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem. That led her to Wittenberg University, a liberal arts school in Springfield, Ohio. A constant experience-gatherer, McCann worked in Yellowstone National Park for a summer, stripping beds and cleaning rooms, and spent semesters at both American University in Washington, D.C., and Jackson College for Women (now part of Tufts University). She was still undecided about her career path when she met a woman who was both a dean and an attorney. McCann liked the fact that the legal profession would give her a variety of options; she could practice law but possibly become a social worker or a dean later on.

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She started at Georgetown University’s law school in 1971; the massive incoming class was broken into five sections of 125 students each. There were only a handful of women in her group. For the most part, she thought her fellow students were accepting, but the teachers seemed less so. McCann just worked harder to prove herself. During one summer, she wrote legal briefs and did research at a Denver law firm run by a Georgetown alum. She didn’t know anyone in the city, but she thought it was a good place to figure out if her infatuation with the West, which had only grown stronger during her summer in Yellowstone, was more than a passing phase. She found two roommates through a newspaper ad and lived in Cherry Creek for a few months.

Back at Georgetown for her third year, McCann had a chance, as part of a class, to represent a woman who’d committed welfare fraud. The mother had taken a job at a pizza restaurant to earn a little extra cash to support her family. The woman knew she should have reported the income to the welfare department, which would have decreased her assistance allotment, and admitted as much. That left McCann with a shaky defense: She’d argue jury nullification, an infrequently used legal concept in which a jury can acquit a person because it believes a law is unfair or burdensome. Basically, McCann was asking the jury to ignore the rules. McCann laid out her case, explaining the woman’s situation and how she was simply trying to help her family. She won, and the experience was formative: McCann liked being in the courtroom.

She headed back to Denver in 1974 after graduation—this time for good—to clerk with U.S. District Court Judge Sherman Finesilver. She was only the second female law clerk in the court. “My judge was great, but I felt like if I screwed up they’d never hire another woman,” McCann says. She had no need to be worried: More female lawyers would follow her path soon after as growing numbers of women entered law school and the profession (in 2016, more than half of all first-year law students were female).

As she neared the end of her clerkship, McCann knew she wanted to try litigation. One of Finesilver’s previous clerks worked in the DA’s office, and the connection eventually helped land McCann an interview with District Attorney Dale Tooley in 1975. He posed an ethical dilemma for her in that meeting: What would she do if she discovered new evidence that could sink a case she’d been prepping for months just before it went to trial? She thought it was a trick question; she’d disclose the evidence and dismiss the case. It was the right answer. He hired her and told her to seek justice, not convictions, which became a guiding principle throughout her career.
McCann doesn’t recall gender discrimination in the office but says it took judges longer to adapt to women in the courtroom.

They’d call her “honey,” and one asked ifnshe was a “Miss” or a “Mrs.” (A friend drew a cartoon of this latter interaction; it’s framed and hangs in McCann’s office today.) In 1978, she helped form the Colorado Women’s Bar Association (CWBA) not only to address discrimination in the profession, but also to focus on gender-specific legal questions about health insurance, maternity leave, property ownership, and more. The group was a sounding board and a network to bolster careers, and they quickly formed a committee to advocate for more women on the bench. The CWBA stood in contrast to the Law Club, then an all-male attorney group that held an annual performance in which members’ wives were the only women allowed to perform.

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The CWBA decided to host its own rival spoof show and called it “The Un-timely Motions.” Some members took tap dancing classes; others wrote lyrics to songs, like Everything’s Coming Up Roses, that roasted local judges who sometimes good-naturedly performed in their show. McCann says now that the skits helped bolster the group’s efforts by allowing them to joke while raising awareness about gender inequities in the courtroom. “It’s interesting that in one lifetime,” McCann says, “you can see as much change as there has been.”

On January 4, McCann sits at a small table at Thump Coffee in Capitol Hill. At 10:30 a.m., she’s already between meetings around town. It’s a few weeks before she will be sworn in as DA, so she’s not officially on the job, but she’s chatting with community stakeholders, introducing herself to new colleagues, and generally doing the type of exhaustive preparatory work she’s known for.

She leans forward, resting her elbows on the table, to talk through her to-do list. Just as quickly, she rocks back and brushes her silver-blond hair behind one of her ears. There’s a constant energy to McCann’s movements, as if she’s running in place. Her eagerness to get started is palpable. She’ll be in charge of 80 attorneys and more than 120 staffers, including investigators, victim advocates, and administrative personnel. Together, the office will handle nearly 7,000 felonies and some 12,000 misdemeanors each year. “It’s just thrilling, honestly,” she says. “It’s time. I’ve wanted this job for a while.”

In fact, McCann had actively sought this position for more than two decades. In 1993, when then DA Norman Early left in the middle of his term for the private sector, she was one of three finalists for the gig. Governor Roy Romer appointed Bill Ritter to the job; Ritter would serve three terms, during which he established a drug court and led efforts to protect elders and sexual assault victims. (Forced out by term limits in 2004, Ritter set his sights on the Capitol a few blocks east and was elected governor in 2006.)

When Ritter left the DA job, McCann was working in the Colorado attorney general’s office, but her interest in returning to the DA’s office was undiminished. She filed papers and started campaigning, earning key endorsements from high-profile Democrats including Ken Salazar and Wellington Webb. As a Democrat running in Denver—which then and now polls more blue than red—McCann’s only obstacle would be the party primary. Her chances looked good after the county assembly in May, when she earned 45 percent of the vote. At the time, she told the Denver Post, “I’m psyched. We’re going to win this.”

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Mitch Morrissey, a veteran deputy DA, hadn’t earned enough votes at the assembly to get a spot on the primary ballot, so he gathered signatures to make the cut. At that point, McCann’s biggest competition appeared to be John Walsh, an attorney with experience similar to hers. The primary campaign focused on what the DA’s office needed to do next and the office’s response—and lack of charges—in some high-profile police shootings. In debates, Morrissey emphasized that he was a prosecutor and not a politician, unlike his opponents, but the campaign was mostly amiable. That is, until the last few days when a poll run by Morrissey’s campaign asked questions that insinuated McCann had embezzled money and spied on Coloradans in previous jobs (both assertions were false). Morrissey apologized for the tone of the poll—after he’d won the primary with 45 percent of the vote.

McCann was devastated, but just like when she was in law school, where she’d also faced adversity, she turned to her work. She ran for, and won, a spot in the Colorado House of Representatives in 2008 and began writing legislation. Prosecutors, McCann says, can be wary of Legislatures tinkering with statutes, but she found the process enlightening. She had a chance to fight for issues she cared about and refine skills—community collaboration, management—she could use in other campaigns, maybe even another DA run.

She’d get her chance in the 2016 election. Ann Frick discouraged her from running again during a lunch at Cook’s Fresh Market. She’d helped with the first campaign and reminded McCann about the pain of defeat. McCann would not be dissuaded. She filed papers in January 2015 and started raising money, walking neighborhoods, and making calls. “I think I’m much better now than I would have been then,” she says.

The city had changed since her 2004 campaign, but at least one of the issues hadn’t: Debates often focused on questions about police accountability. McCann faced two candidates in the June primary—Kenneth Boyd, Bill Ritter’s nephew and a deputy DA endorsed by Morrissey, and Michael Carrigan, a well-known criminal attorney and University of Colorado regent. She won handily and went on to face Helen Morgan, a chief deputy DA, who ran as an independent in the general election. McCann’s victory was decisive: She won with 73 percent of the vote.

Beth McCann
McCann at a Police/Community Advisory Council meeting in September. Photo by Benjamin Rasmussen.

Still, McCann knew her campaign didn’t end in November. Now she had to convince the deputy DAs that she was the best person to lead the office forward. Yes, they’d still put away criminals, but she also wanted them to look at why the cases ended up on their desks in the first place. She’d built a campaign on widening the DA’s lens to look at alternatives to incarceration and options for reducing crime. Prosecutors can feel uncomfortable with those ideas. They tend to look at the files in front of them in a vacuum. This isn’t shortsighted, they say, but instead a way to ensure due process in every case. What McCann was planning was a slight twist on her old boss’ advice to find justice. “Clearly our main responsibility is to prosecute crime, which we will continue to do effectively,” McCann says. “I just want to make sure we’re locking up the right people and we’re reducing our reliance on the criminal justice system to solve mental health problems or social problems. I don’t think the criminal justice system does a particularly good job of that.”

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Mccann moved up quickly in the DA’s office and became a chief deputy in 1981. She prosecuted two people for the death of a young girl left in a hot car. She led a case in which a teenage runaway had been pimped out by a couple who’d taken her in. She helped put away a man who’d case homes, waiting for parents to leave their children with babysitters before gaining entry and molesting the kids. It was often brutal work, but in the courtroom McCann remained measured, unflappable, and convincing to juries.

She moved to private practice in 1984 and sat on the other side of the courtroom from her former DA office colleagues. In 1985, the Denver Bar Association named her outstanding young lawyer of the year. Two years later, Ann Frick introduced her to Christopher “Toff” Linsmayer, an airline pilot. For their first date, Linsmayer showed up in shorts, but McCann was wearing a “full-blown deposition suit,” he recalls. “Can you do me a favor?” he asked her. “Can you dress down for this date?” She laughed, and his gambit worked. The two were married in 1988. He was busy, and so was she, but they shared a love of all things outdoors and took to the slopes and trails when they could. Their first child, Christopher, was born in 1989.

By then, McCann was more active in local politics, and in 1991, Mayor Wellington Webb asked McCann to join his cabinet as the manager of safety, the civilian head of the police, fire, and sheriff departments. She was the first woman to hold the job. “I don’t anticipate any problems because I’m a woman,” McCann told the Rocky Mountain News at the time. “I think I’ll be able to establish my credibility.”

The city was roiling in the early 1990s as the entire country reacted to an increase in crime. When several Los Angeles police officers were acquitted in 1992 for the beating of Rodney King, Webb and his cabinet members—including McCann—spread out in Denver to reassure people. Earlier that same year, when a Ku Klux Klan rally was held on the day of the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial observances, Denver reacted. Protestors threw bottles. Police used tear gas. McCann, who was pregnant with Lizzy, her second child, was tear-gassed as she worked with other members of the administration to quell the violence.

In addition to the social discord, internal and administrative politics were troubling. Most notably, McCann asked that the agility test for the firefighter exam be reviewed to ensure fairness for female applicants (only 23 of 840 firefighter jobs in Denver were held by women). The department disagreed with the request, and the matter went to court. McCann won, but the issue simmered. The post office intercepted a package addressed to her home containing a dead fish with a bullet stuffed in its mouth. The accompanying note read: “Get out of a man’s job and stay home.”

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McCann declined additional personal protection, and the sender’s identity was never discovered. In 1994, she switched jobs to supervise Denver’s Safe City initiatives, a task that included spending $1 million in annual grants focused on juvenile intervention and crime prevention. She oversaw the implementation of a citywide juvenile curfew program, which still exists. A year later, she took over the city’s excise and licensing department, the body that approves liquor licenses. On paper, the job may have seemed lackluster, but the city’s heart—downtown—was experiencing a renaissance with the opening of Coors Field. Her department was tasked with finding compromises between commercial developers and longtime residents.

McCann would make two more major career shifts. First, in 1999 she joined Attorney General Ken Salazar’s office, where she’d eventually head up civil litigation and employment law. Then, almost a decade later, she won that seat in the Colorado Statehouse representing District 8, which includes Congress Park, City Park, and northeast Denver. She held the office for four terms and sponsored legislation on many of the same topics she’d been passionate about as a prosecutor: human trafficking, gun control, and juvenile justice.

All the while, she and Linsmayer balanced their demanding schedules and raised their kids using what Linsmayer describes as “tag-team parenting.” There were the normal camping, canoeing, and ski trips (McCann still has a Rocky Mountain Super Pass Plus) and games of Life, Monopoly, and Risk. Dinner conversations often featured politics. If McCann cooked, it would be salmon and tortellini; if Linsmayer was chef, dinner would be steak and rice. But, mostly, the kids didn’t pay attention to the fact that their mom’s name was becoming one of Denver’s most recognizable. Lizzy recalls seeing “McCann” on a campaign sign staked in someone’s lawn and a friend asking her why their last names were different. Lizzy’s answer was simple: “Because she’s the boss.”

Empty chip bags, half-eaten salads, and legal pads clutter the tables in an eighth-floor conference room at the Wellington E. Webb Municipal Office Building on August 2. More than 40 people from the DA’s office, a mix of attorneys and staff, are here to discuss Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. McCann had given everyone a copy of the book upon her arrival.

The mood is good-natured but a bit hesitant. The moderator, a University of Denver law professor, challenges the group to think about how racial bias might be concealed in their work. McCann doesn’t say much, letting her staff talk about how societal biases have played out by the time cases hit their desks. How part of their job is making sure not to consider race or gender. How due process should be colorblind. But, the moderator asks, if bias unintentionally creeps into their job, can they do something about it? There wasn’t an easy answer.

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Later, McCann elaborates on her impression of the discussion: “I want to make sure that there isn’t any implicit or unconscious bias in the office and in how we’re handling cases,” McCann says. “Are we offering different plea bargains to different races that have similar backgrounds?” To answer that question, she’s mining department data with the help of Kenneth Boyd, who ran against her in the primary and still works in the office.

Boyd championed the idea during the campaign and McCann agreed that it was a good one, giving him command of the project. Boyd says McCann’s first weeks as DA were rocky, but that was primarily because the office had switched to an electronic files system a month before she started and everyone’s day-to-day work schedule was in upheaval. “Everybody settled back in,” Boyd says. Part of that is because McCann made only a few personnel changes. “The staff in this office are terrific,” she says. “Mitch did a great job of hiring.” Only four of Morrissey’s deputies and the communications director did not return to the office. McCann made some promotions, brought in a veteran communications director, and hired a new second-in-command, Ryan Brackley, a seasoned prosecutor who’d worked in Manhattan and, most recently, as Boulder’s assistant DA. The ease of the transition surprised Brackley, who says he’s pleased with how quickly McCann unified the staff around her agenda. “I thought it would take years for that to happen,” he says, “but Beth did it in six months.”

She also asked her former opponent Helen Morgan to take control of two key initiatives. The first is a special behavioral health division that looks to, among other things, prevent repeat offenses with early intervention and alternatives to incarceration. The second focuses on having a prosecutor present at first advisement, the moment when a defendant hears the charges for which he or she is under investigation and a judge sets bail. Traditionally, Denver prosecutors, who don’t have much information about cases at that point, have not attended first advisement because there was concern it would be a waste of time and because the DA could be blamed if someone got out on a bond they’d suggested and committed a crime. “To me, neither of those reasons were sufficient to counteract the benefit of having us at first advisement,” McCann says. “I’m willing to take that risk.”

By encouraging prosecutors to suggest bonds to judges on a case-by-case basis, she sees first advisement as an opportunity to make sure that people accused of low-level and victimless crimes aren’t spending unnecessary time in jail. But she also thinks the proceeding is a chance to see if unintentional bias—the focus of the office book club discussion—is influencing charges, bonds, and incarceration. Morgan has taken up that challenge and says the promotion has been affirming. “In a funny way, the best thing that happened to my vision was to lose to Beth McCann, because Beth has allowed me to do exactly what I wanted to do and supported me all the way.”

There have been hiccups in McCann’s short tenure. After helping Democratic Party fundraisers book a tour of the Denver Police Department Crime Lab, McCann canceled the event when media outlets criticized the potential political favoritism. The Denver Police Protective Association blasted her for failing to file misdemeanor charges against Chief Robert White and Deputy Chief Matt Murray for withholding a letter requested under the Colorado Open Records Act. (They were legally obligated to comply with the request and eventually did). McCann stands by her decision, contesting that the legal bar of proving a “knowing and willful violation” was not met. Nick Rogers, the president of the police union and a Denver Police Department detective, disagrees. “She ran on the platform of, ‘I’m going to hold law enforcement accountable,’ and when she had the opportunity, she fumbled the ball,” he says.

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Internally, McCann is aware that she’s asked her deputies and staff to take on new initiatives and more work with the same number of people. “I need more bodies, and we are asking for some more in the budget next year,” McCann says. “I do think my line deputies in the courtroom are feeling a little overwhelmed.” Plus, she’s requested that her prosecutors go to more public events so that the community hears—directly from them—what the office is doing to keep Denver safe. To help with that, McCann spends several after-work hours each week out in the city herself. These events tend to be alike: McCann stands in front of a group of concerned citizens, introduces herself as the new DA, and then lays out some of her plans—all of which seem to build on one another. One night she talks about encouraging people to report hate crimes. On a different day she speaks to a group about immigration concerns, emphasizing that citizenship should not impact whether a crime is reported and that her office will not ask whether someone is in the country legally or not. At another event she discusses restorative justice, a sentencing process for minor crimes in which an offender must meet with victims and members of the community to better understand the impact of his or her crime.

At an East Colfax Avenue safety meeting on August 2, she brings a dossier on arecent murder to update people on the in-vestigation. The group includes concerned residents, business owners, community mem-bers, and police working to make the area safer. “We’re going to continue to prosecute violent crime and drug-dealing,” she says. “But I really think we haven’t been very successful in our war on drugs, and we need to be looking at some more creative and alternative ways to address this.”

As she speaks, it is easy to imagine her as that Georgetown law student making a plea to a jury to not only acquit a defendant, but also to challenge the very essence of the law. Or as a young deputy DA trying to see justice as something bigger than one case. Or as the manager of safety who fought so hard to ensure women had a fair chance when applying for firefighter positions. All of those moments—the 2004 election defeat, her time in the Legislature, the firefighter battle—seem to make sense now. Her campaign is, finally, coming to an end. Now, her work begins.

This article appeared in the November 2017 issue of .

Natasha Gardner, Articles Editor

Natasha Gardner writes and edits longform journalism and multimedia projects for 5280 and is a regular columnist for 5280.com.

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