Academics and Research / Magazine Feature

State attorney general trains next generation at DU

A visiting professor leading a class at the University of Denver’s Sturm College of Law lands some impressive guest speakers: nationally known death penalty expert David Lane, Denver District Attorney Mitchell Morrissey, Colorado marijuana-rights crusader Mason Tvert and Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter.

But that’s the kind of “A” list a visiting professor can line up — when he’s John Suthers, Colorado’s attorney general. 

Although he’s lectured at community colleges, Suthers says the fall semester at DU has been his first stint at a law school. The course, The Prosecutor as Protagonist, offers two dozen second- and third-year students a glimpse inside a district attorney’s office. For each weekly class, Suthers invites guest lecturers for the first half, each with a specific area of expertise, then opens the class up for debate and discussion.

“About half the class is here because they plan to be prosecutors,” Suthers says. “The other half, they’re here gathering intelligence on us. And that’s fine, it makes for some good discussions.” 

Introducing the governor to his class, Suthers said Ritter wasn’t invited because of his political position.

“A lot of people might think I invited Bill Ritter here because he’s the governor. But the fact is, I invited him here because before he was governor, he was a district attorney,” Suthers said. “I have not heard anyone speak so eloquently on what it means to be a prosecutor.” 

Ritter, appearing comfortable in the casual classroom atmosphere, bantered with students and joked with Suthers about the old days when Suthers was the veteran district attorney in El Paso County and Ritter was a newly-appointed district attorney in Denver. Ritter said he learned the hard way that being a prosecutor is a difficult, often gut-wrenching, job. 

“Being a good prosecutor is the slow process of alienating 100 percent of your friends,” he joked, before turning serious. “It is a terribly difficult thing to do … But at the end of the day, it’s about doing the right thing.”

Ritter told students that by holding themselves to the highest ethical standards, prosecutors may find that undoing a wrongful conviction, putting someone back out on the street, might just be the ethical thing to do. That can be hard, he said.

Suthers’ experiences as district attorney, head of the state’s prison system, and now as attorney general, provide him a wealth of examples to make points about the law. And it gives him a deep Rolodex of guest speakers.

“I’ve been impressed to hear how balanced the class was,” said Jose Lopez, a third-year student who admits he sides with defendants but is taking the class to understand the mind of a prosecutor. “We’ve had some great speakers, and I think we were able to hear from a lot of those speakers because it’s the attorney general asking them to join us.”

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