The Big Bitch
The secret behind long sentences handed out to repeat offenders in the 18th Judicial District
On the Saturday before Easter 2010, Dennis Pauls got it into his head to give his ex-wife a plant. It was an Easter lily, a Christian symbol of suffering and renewal; tradition says white lilies bloomed where Christ's sweat fell to the ground in the garden of Gethsemane, a sign of the resurrection to come.
Chambers involve non-violent crimes.
On the day he saw the Easter plant on sale at Safeway, Pauls was making plans to leave Colorado for good. He'd just completed parole after serving several months in prison for forging checks on his ex-wife's account to pay for food and booze when he was on a bender. He considered himself a recovering alcoholic now, although he still had lapses when the thirst hit him.
He left the plant on his ex's porch with a note: Good Lord, it is Holy Week. Happy Easter. I am proud of you and Chloee. Chloee, the couple's beloved Chesapeake Bay retriever, was something else drinking had cost him. His ex had gone to court for a restraining order to keep him from bothering either one of them.
Within a few hours, Pauls began to feel anxious about what he'd just done. Leaving the plant was a violation of the restraining order. He thought about rushing back to the house to retrieve it before his ex found it, but what if someone saw him there? Better to fix a Scotch and get busy on his move to Florida.
Four months later, while in the throes of what he would later describe as a panic attack, Pauls made a frantic phone call for help from his new home in Naples, Florida. Local police did a welfare check and ran his name through their records, which turned up an arrest warrant in Colorado for the plant business. He spent three weeks in the local lockup, until Arapahoe County deputies arrived to escort him back to their jail.
Pauls didn't understand why the county was bothering with extradition over such a minor offense. He'd incurred violations of the restraining order before, calling his wife to track down tax returns and other mundane stuff — nothing violent or threatening — and he knew that such conduct was considered a misdemeanor or less.
It was only when he met with a public defender in the Arapahoe County jail that Pauls realized he was in deep trouble. He was being charged with felony stalking, the attorney explained. Pauls already had three felonies on his record: the forgery case and two drunk-driving convictions in Kansas, as well as a deferred sentence for harassment in a dispute with a neighbor. Being found guilty of a fourth felony would make him eligible for what's known in legal circles as the Big Bitch — a finding that he's a habitual criminal and thus required to be sentenced to four times the maximum of what a felony stalking rap would usually bring. (The Little Bitch, which can be applied to a defendant with two prior felonies, triples the maximum sentence.)
His lawyer told Pauls that he was looking at either 24 or 32 years in prison if the Arapahoe County district attorney pursued the habitual charge. Prosecutors were offering a twelve-year deal if he agreed to plead guilty right now instead of going to trial.
Some deal. To Pauls, twelve years in prison didn't sound any more survivable than 32, especially at his age. He was facing a potential life sentence for the crime of delivering a plant to a woman he'd been married to for decades.
"I told him there was no way I could plead guilty to stalking, something I hadn't done, and go away for twelve years," Pauls recalls. "Where is the justice in that?"
Yet the kind of lose-lose choice Pauls was offered — agree to a plea carrying an absurdly long sentence or get "bitched" — is what often passes for justice for repeat offenders in Arapahoe County. The campaign to bitch just about anybody who can be bitched in the southeast suburbs has prompted some criminal defense attorneys to refer to the place as Arapahell: an infernal region that, strictly speaking, doesn't stop at the county line. Under the leadership of District Attorney Carol Chambers, the entire 18th Judicial District, which includes Arapahoe, Douglas, Elbert and Lincoln counties, has become an experiment in prosecutorial overkill unlike anything else in Colorado.
Because the consequences of a habitual criminal sentence can be so grave, most prosecutors use the statute sparingly. In many districts, it's usually reserved for people who commit multiple violent crimes or career crooks, such as burglars, who may be getting caught only a few times while committing dozens or hundreds of crimes. "We see the bitch scheme as a tool to get significant prison sentences for people who need to be incarcerated for a long period of time to protect the community," says Boulder District Attorney Stan Garnett.