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Hi, I’m Brad Feld, a managing director at the Foundry Group who lives in Boulder, Colorado. I invest in software and Internet companies around the US, run marathons and read a lot.

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My Afternoon at the Boulder County Justice Center

Comments (18)

I spent 90 minutes in the Boulder County Justice Center last Friday.  Yeah – it’s a beautiful building in an incredible setting.  But – what goes on inside isn’t so beautiful.  And – it’s definitely not what you see on Law and Order.

Cjc

I have a story about a former running coach of mine who is now serving a long jail sentence.  Someday I’ll feel like writing the entire story – it has some amazing twists and turns that – in hindsight – are instructive and enlightening.  It was also my first real experience with a convicted felon and – as a result – I had to rethink a lot of my biases, fears, and preconceived notions about how justice works in this country.

Last Friday was emotionally difficult.  I went to the sentencing hearing for Mr. Coach at the request of his lawyer.  She was looking for several people to speak on behalf of Coach – he had already pled to new felony charges and was facing 8 to 16 years (it turns out that he’d been previously convicted for five previous felonies – all for similar check and bank fraud claims.)  His lawyer was hoping for a sentence of 8 years, even though she admitted that nothing had gone Coach’s way in this case.

I’d never been to the Boulder Justice Center before.  Amy had when she served jury duty and she warned me to be ready for an awkward feeling experience in the beauty of the Boulder Flatirons.  I’d been to the Jefferson County Courthouse a number of times during my successful efforts to help defeat a proposal for supertowers on Eldorado Mountain. The Boulder Justice Center – like the Jefferson County Courthouse – is externally beautiful, internally well done, but with a patina of discomfort everywhere.

I went through security and wandered through the halls looking for the courtroom for the sentencing hearing.  I found the room, entered, and sat down on one of the long, lonely benches.  Coach hadn’t been brought in yet, so I sat and watched three other sentencing hearings.  The courtroom was overmiked so you could hear every conversation that was occurring, which often was as many as four at a time.  The judge – a middle-aged woman who exuded competence and control – settled everyone down and called the first case.

A well dressed man and his lawyer walked to the podium.  The judge addressed him, reading out his charges, which included stalking his ex-wife, harassing her, and breaking a restraining order.  The attorney whispered urgently in the man’s ear, clearly calming him down as you could see the man’s face flush.  The judge then walked through the plea agreement, which included a three year suspended sentence, probation, and another restraining order.  She asked several formal legal questions which he agreed to.  She asked if he had any questions.  A series of emotional questions from the man followed, which insinuated that the ex-wife was having difficulty living up to her end of the custody agreement.  The judge admonished the man – asserting that this was about him, not his ex-wife.  There was a long pause, some discussion with the attorney, at which point the emotional man managed to tearfully agree.  The judge pronounced the sentence and closed the case.  The man walked out of the courtroom with his head hung low, staring at the ground.

Next up was a very overweight woman loudly dressed (always a sight for the chronically over-fit town of Boulder.)  I had trouble understanding the situation, but it had something to do with a DUI, underpaid restitution from a previous conviction, and some current issue that was unclear.  The woman was very emotional, but articulate, explained that she knew she had done wrong in the past, but was now working full time, going to therapy, taking care of two kids as a single mother, and going to AA meetings.  Her boss came up and spoke on her behalf – it was clear that she was trying hard to hold it together.  She admitted that she had gotten behind on the restitution payments, but was now paying $100 / month which was as much as she could afford (she was making $500 / week at her 40 hour / week job – remember – two kids.)  The DA then asked for her sentence to be amended to include 80 additional hours of community service in exchange for the missed restitution.  The judge looked thoughtfully at the woman, told her she was doing a good job, looked at the DA, told her that she would much rather have the loudly dressed woman working full time, and praised her for her efforts.  The judge reiterated – for the record – that the minimum monthly restitution payment should continue to be $100 until it was fully paid (there was still $8,400 remaining to be paid) – and closed the case.

The judge took a ten minute break as we waited for the DA to show up for the next case.  The judge returned and – after some confusion – discovered that the person to be sentenced “was missing.”  It took a little while to figure out where he was – it turned out that he’d been transferred from one jail to a different one earlier in the week.  Chaos ensued for a little while longer, at which point the judge decided to ice things until Monday.

By the point Coach had been brought into the courtroom.  He was handcuffed, accompanied by an armed (and very intimidating looking) guard, and wearing Boulder County prison whites. He was seated in an area away from us, but looked over and mouthed a “thank you for coming” to the people that were there for him. The last time I saw him was about nine months ago when I last visited him at the Boulder County Jail – he looked unchanged.  The judge eventually called his case.  There was some procedural stuff between Coach’s attorney, the judge, and the DA as this judge was new to the case and Coach’s attorney wanted to delay the sentencing until the judge that had been involved in the rest of the case could preside (she was unexpectedly out that day.)  The judge declined – stating she was up to speed on the case and was comfortable determining the sentence.  Coach’s attorney made her statement and then called four of us up to speak on his behalf.  I went last and followed the other three with acknowledgment that Coach had done many things wrong, had deceived many people, but had been a dedicated coach and we’d seen plenty of good in him.  All of us requested that the judge consider being lenient – which in this case meant a sentence of 8 years instead of up to 16 years.  The DA then spoke, stating that Coach was a bad guy, demonstrated chronic deceit, had repeatedly done the same bad things over and over in his life, and deserved 15 to 16 years.  Coach then spoke, addressing the judge directly, apologized for his actions, explained that he knew he was wrong and deserved whatever he got, had been trying hard to do right, but had gotten overwhelmed and didn’t know how to ask for help.  Mixed in all of this was a lot of discussion of a relatively recent diagnosis of bipolar disorder along with the accompanying medication and therapy, which – according to Coach and his attorney – had shown a marked change in his attitude, behavior, and perception.

Coach sat down and the judge addressed all of us.  The basic message was “while you have seen the good in Coach, you’ve been fortunate to not see the bad in Coach.  This is a man who has habitually deceived people through his life – he is a con-man, a flim-flam man.  While the bipolar disorder may have an impact, this doesn’t excuse his behavior.”  She said a few more things, which I interpreted as implying that those of us supporting Coach – while nice – were naive.  She then sentenced him to 12 years.

Coach – head down – was walked out of the courtroom.  We stood and walked out into the hall.  The group of us gathered around Coach’s attorney, who had tears in her eyes.  She told us that this felt like the first case she’d ever had where a client was sentenced to jail – the prosecutor – and older man – came up to her and said “honey – you’ll get used to it.”  She said she never has, and this one was harder than so many others because she didn’t feel that Coach deserved this sentence.

I wandered out of the courthouse, got in my car, and slowly drove home.

  • http://ashimmy.typepad.com Alan Shimel

    Justice in America, he will get 12 years and someone raping someone or committing a violent armed crime will get much less. There used to be the notion of rehabilitation, but our “compassionate conservatisim” has replaced that with revenge and punishment.

  • http://blog.solalta.com Darren Fast

    Thanks for sharing your story. I agree that there are no easy answers as it all depends on your perspective on the story. I suppose someone can find fault with all of us if they look hard enough. It’s good to know that people can see the good in us too, you are a good friend to the coach and I suspect that he will continue to need your friendship as the years go by.

  • http://www.askderekscruggs.com Derek Scruggs

    I don’t remember the name, but ISTR hearing something a while back about a local coach getting in bad trouble. Sorry you had to get in the middle of it.

    To sit in a courtroom is to experience the edge cases of society.. I don’t envy you.

  • Rob

    This sort of thing is so political.

    Unfortunately, Americans, as a group of people, are pretty stupid. That’s not to say there aren’t some switched-on Americans, but that most Americans are dumb. It’s a problem of too much money, and thinking done on their behalf. It’s not – usually – their fault, either.

    Anyway, for dumb people, the most politically attractive thing to be is black and white (starkly contrasted – nothing to do with actual colour) about things. It shows “strength” and “leadership” (apparently). Your politicians are – by and large – black and white. Your media is black and white. You see the world in black and white terms. Good versus evil. Them and us. Terrorists and non-terrorists.

    So, unfortunatly for you, and sometimes the rest of the world, the people who end up in positions of power/judgement in the USA are people who act in black and white.

    Hence the coach has a good side, and an evil side. The judge is telling you that this is a simple cut-and-diced case: you missed the evil; the judge sees lots of evil in their work, and evil needs to be punished. End of story.

    So where’s the logic? Where’s the rehabilitation? Where are the victims of this man’s crime?

    Well, nowhere.

    Thanks for the post, Brad, and well done for taking the time to play your part – that’s all you can do.

  • http://propercourse.blogspot.com/ Tillerman

    Fascinating story. Makes us realise that we only ever see one side of many of the people we think we know.

  • Chris

    Generally I love to read what is said around here. But I disagree so heavily with this rant. Amazing low one sided it all is. If all you read is this, it seems like “coach” has been convited and sentenced only because of his past crimes, nothing about what got him 12 MORE YEARS. What has rehab done for criminals in any country except allowed them to commit more crimes? Maybe we need more extreme versions of punishment, that will actually act as a deterent to commit crimes in the first place. But until that happens I will be stopping my RSS feed to this worthless drivle.

  • http://www.benneumann.com Ben Neumann

    I always have mixed emotions when I hear or read a story such as the one of “Coach”; especially, if there is a personal connection. It’s never easy to decide someone’s faith, but when you step back a little and try to boil things down, most people usually end up laying in the bed they made for themselves. Now, under our current judicial system, I believe Coach should be able to make it out after 6-8 years, if he does ok. I know, it doesn’t make it better right now, but there’s still panty of life left to be lived after he serves his time. The one thing Coach needs to do, however, is learn his lesson and move on from there! It

  • http://genghisblog.blogspot.com/ genghis

    Brad,

    Thanks for a thought-provoking and thoughtful article, which illuminated for some the twisty paths which have developed in the American judicial system.

    The slogan which runs “If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime!” works for me here in England as well as it does in Boulder! The question asked of the jury was, “Was this guy guilty?”; and the answer was “Yes!” So the Coach was then slung on the pile of decisions left for the judge, who has been deputed by society to make these decisions on its’ behalf.

    I understand that you knew the guy pretty well when you were younger, but people do change, and the stand-up guy whom you knew is possibly no longer around!

    Best of luck to you and to Amy, for as long as there are people such as yourselves who will stand up and state that this guy is not all bad, America will still stand tall in the eyes of many around the world!

  • Me

    Wow, Brad, that picture brought back some memories!

    I spent a couple days in that building in the 1980′s. An overused phrase – “CHANGED MY LIFE”.

    I know it wasn’t the point of your story, but I’ll say it anyway, Nothing like a night in overcrowded jail to scare a middle class teenager back on track.

    And to Rob, all crimes have a victim…there is no such thing as “victimless crime” in a democracy. Prison has historically two purposes, punishment and deterrent, it now also has the purpose of rehab and unfortunately, containment. It sounds like deterrent didn’t work for Coach, it also sounds like rehab is working, and now punishment takes over.

    I will agree with Allan that sentencing is often out of proportion to the crime itself.

    When you reduce it to the personal level, it is not good for Coach, but he was responsible for his actions and personal responsibility is something many in America need to learn again.

  • DeanR

    Brad – I too had an experience with Mr. Coach, he “hired” my company to build his website. My team worked over their Thanksgiving holiday in 2004 to get it done for his deadline of Dec 1st. As you can imagine, we got it done and it was pretty nice – my team went over and above.

    Coach never did pay for the website, he left me holding the bag and I of course had to pay all of the team members out of my own pocket. Coach was a very good manipulator and strung me along for months thinking I’d actually get paid. Ended up taking him to court (he didn’t bother to show up to that nice looking Boulder County Court House for our hearing) and even after winning a judgement against him – never got much in the form of pay back.

    Had he not been referred to me by a good friend (a mutual friend of ours) I probably would have not been so eager to please and do such a good job. He used my website for months and never did pay for it – and constantly made me feel as though I were the bad guy for hassling him for payment over and over again.

    Anyway, what I’m getting at is that there were two sides to this guy, you didn’t get to view the side I did. I don’t have much remorse for Mr. Coach, I hope that he spends the next 12 years thinking about all the little people like me whom he bilked that will get no rembursement.

    Dean Rizzuto

  • http://acknak.blogspot.com Bob Corrigan

    What I find particularly sad is that Mr. Coach is obviously intelligent, capable (in his own way), and for lack of a better way of saying it, lost.

    Instead of affording him some way of paying his debt to society in an active way, he’s going to sit in a cell, doing nothing but suffering and counting time.

    Everyone loses.

  • http://www.exoduscap.com/blog Tom O'Neill

    Not only do I see no good in putting this man in a cell, it is in direct logical conflict with the notion of property rights.

    If Coach stole (via force or fraud) the property of victims A,B, and C, then only A,B and C have a just claim against Coach in the amount of their losses, plus recovery expenses. They have every right to hire an enforcement agency to recover these losses through Coach's assets or future income.

    In this case, the prosecutor "P", enters the scene to punish Coach. He claims to represent A,B and C, but actually represents the state (and his own political aspirations – see Spitzer) whose interests are often adverse to the victim's. Putting the man behind bars for 12 years completely eliminates any chance for him to repay his victims, and worse, the victims are forced to pay bear the costs (probably north of $1.2MM) for their theif's upkeep for the next 12 years (along with the other local taxpayers).

    Hardly what I would call "justice," were I a victim of Coach's actions.

  • http://www.exoduscap.com/blog Tom O’Neill

    Not only do I see no good in putting this man in a cell, it is in direct logical conflict with the notion of property rights.

    If Coach stole (via force or fraud) the property of victims A,B, and C, then only A,B and C have a just claim against Coach in the amount of their losses, plus recovery expenses. They have every right to hire an enforcement agency to recover these losses through Coach’s assets or future income.

    In this case, the prosecutor “P”, enters the scene to punish Coach. He claims to represent A,B and C, but actually represents the state (and his own political aspirations – see Spitzer) whose interests are often adverse to the victim’s. Putting the man behind bars for 12 years completely eliminates any chance for him to repay his victims, and worse, the victims are forced to pay bear the costs (probably north of $1.2MM) for their theif’s upkeep for the next 12 years (along with the other local taxpayers).

    Hardly what I would call “justice,” were I a victim of Coach’s actions.

  • Fred Noelke

    I stumbled across your blog. I had two encounters with the Boulder Justice. It changed my entire life. I lost my sense of community and have never regained it. Going to any prison is torture.

    I also wanted to mention that I have a 61 year old roommate that went to Nam. The government just caught up with him on his 2400 dollar GIbill Loan that has now turned into 15,000. He has PTSD like most veterans and has had a rough life. Any ideas?

    Fred

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  • Karen

    Nah! It is boring for me. I guess it just depends on the person and his or her taste.

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