District attorney for the 20th Judicial District, covering Boulder County.
Ran in 2018 Democratic primary for attorney general but withdrew following appointment as Boulder DA; elected to finish term in 2018, running unopposed for a full four-year term this year.
Supervised the Colorado DNA Justice Review Project in 2010 as a senior assistant attorney general; was Colorado's deputy attorney general in charge of the Criminal Section, 2010-2013; deputy district attorney for the 1st Judicial District, covering Jefferson and Gilpin counties, 2013-2018. Received the Innocence Project’s Award for Advocate for Innocence and Justice in 2015. Currently, co-Chair of Colorado's Sentencing Reform Task Force.
Was a prosecutor at the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office from 1997-2010, starting in the Trial Division, then as deputy chief of the Sex Crimes Unit, finally on the office's Executive Staff .
Holds bachelor's degree from Cornell University after first attending Nassau Community College; graduate of Boston University School of Law.
Michael and his wife, Antonia, live in Boulder and are the parents of 12-year-old twins. He has twice finished the Leadville 100-Mile Trail Run and regularly competes in ultra marathons around the state.
Colorado Politics: You came to Colorado, after working in the fabled New York County District Attorney’s office, to supervise the state’s DNA Justice Review Project under Attorney General John Suthers. How did that change your approach to being a prosecutor?
Dougherty: I moved from Brooklyn to Boulder with my family for the opportunity to head up the Colorado DNA Justice Review Project. Serving as the lead on the JRP reinforced important lessons for me and helped me to develop a better understanding of the necessary safeguards to prevent wrongful convictions.
At the Manhattan DA’s Office, it had been drilled into me that a prosecutor’s mission is to “do justice” in every case, without fear or favor. It is consistent with that mission for prosecutors to employ an effective and thorough review of prior cases in order to root out wrongful convictions. Also, given the power and responsibility entrusted to prosecutors, every DA’s Office must exercise the best practices around hiring, training, and ethical judgment.
John Suthers developed this innovative program, years before it became common for prosecutors to engage in post-conviction reviews. It was an honor to apply the skills I had learned from years as a prosecutor as the head of the Justice Review Project. The JRP provided a non-adversarial, neutral review process for finding possible wrongful convictions in serious cases, such as rape and murder. I worked with members of the defense bar, district attorneys, laboratory analysts, law enforcement, and victim advocates to lead the review. From that, I learned the value of collaboration among these stakeholders in reviewing wrongful convictions and, for the future, in developing other criminal justice reforms.
For example, my first task with the JRP was to meet with all of the elected district attorneys in Colorado to request their cooperation in allowing the JRP to review their case files. Although our job would be to re-examine the past work of their own offices, every single one of Colorado’s 22 elected district attorneys gave us complete and unfettered access to their case files. Their willingness to do so illustrated their commitment to doing justice, as well as the leadership of Attorney General Suthers.
The Dewey case highlighted the importance of this collaborative effort. On April 30, 2012, Robert Dewey was released from prison, exonerated of rape and murder, after JRP review led to retesting of DNA evidence in his case. Dewey had spent over seventeen years in prison for crimes he did not commit. After, our office helped advocate in the Legislature for a law that would provide Mr. Dewey and other wrongfully convicted individuals with compensation for living expenses, healthcare, and tuition.
The wrongful conviction of Mr. Dewey, which was neither the result of misconduct by the police nor of prosecutors, demonstrated that the system can get it wrong even when everyone operates with best intentions. The case emphasized the importance of repeatedly checking assumptions and conclusions, scrutinizing identifications and recollections of witnesses, and the value of DNA. The lessons learned were one of the reasons I helped with the eyewitness identification reform legislation in 2015 (SB 15-058) that required all Colorado law enforcement agencies to implement eyewitness identification policies that have been scientifically proven to reduce the chances of misidentification. I was honored to receive the Innocence Project’s Award for Advocate for Innocence and Justice for our work on that legislation.
When I first became District Attorney, I identified a collaborative and thorough process for reviewing criminal convictions as a priority for the DA’s Office here in Boulder. That is why we established our Conviction Integrity Unit, the first such program within a District Attorney’s Office in Colorado. Our Conviction Integrity Unit is even more noteworthy in that we invited members of the defense bar to assist in developing the protocol and review process. From JRP, I had learned the value of having the defense bar participate in this effort.
CP: You spent the beginning of your career working for and mentored by legendary district attorney Robert Morgenthau. What did you learn from him that you’re passing on to young prosecutors working for you?
Dougherty: Mr. Morgenthau was an incredible person. From his life spent in the military and in public service, he had become a legend in the prosecution community and New York City. Colorado is the only state with term limits on district attorneys; Mr. Morgenthau served as DA from 1975 through 2009. As he joked with me in 2009, he was “taking early retirement.” I learned so much from working for him and with him. I hope to pass on many of those lessons to the prosecutors in this office.
I will always remember my first meeting with Mr. Morgenthau, in my fourth round of interviews with the Manhattan DA’s Office. He had a presence that engendered immediate respect. And it meant a lot that an elected District Attorney with a staff of 1,300, a budget of $80 million, and a caseload of nearly 100,000 cases, took the time to interview every finalist for a position.
At the time, as a former intern with public defenders’ offices, I was applying to PD’s offices and DA’s offices. I possessed some skepticism about prosecution as a possible career. Through the interviews, the Manhattan DA’s Office dispelled those concerns. In my interview with Mr. Morgenthau, he emphasized, “a prosecutor must never seek convictions like notches in a gunbelt. Do justice.” Under his leadership, over the next 12 years of my career, that statement guided my judgment and the office as a whole. That line about the “gunbelt” is one that my prosecutors have heard me say many times. Perhaps most importantly, I learned the importance of promoting a culture and system dedicated to the goal of justice.
Mr. Morgenthau also taught me that politics should never play a role in prosecutorial decisions. The office was completely independent of any politics whatsoever. As a District Attorney, I am committed to the same.I will never allow decisions to be made because, or influenced by, politics or political parties. From Mr. Morgenthau, I learned how and why to keep politics and elections away from the staff of the office. Even the perception of political influence in a DA’s office can undercut the trust of both the staff and the community.
Mr. Morgenthau promoted me through the ranks very quickly. He took a chance on me, particularly when he asked me to join his Executive Staff at a relatively early stage of my career. I will be eternally grateful to him. I learned so much about leading an office and providing support to a staff so that they can do justice.
Also, he taught me the value of being patient with staff and encouraging independent thinking and discussion before making a final decision. He trusted me and encouraged me to do so. He was incredibly humble and, although a man of few words, always seemed to know the right thing to say – and to do.
Finally, as District Attorney, I try to emulate the sense of calm that he always possessed. Mr. Morgenthau was a legendary District Attorney and tremendously popular throughout his tenure. As with any DA, though, there were times where he had to make unpopular decisions. He never seemed rattled or stressed, even when City Council, the media, or protestors took issue with him. One day, I asked him how that was possible. He smiled and referenced his military service. “When your ship is sunk in the war and you’re bobbing around the ocean wondering if you will live, you learn to keep everything else in perspective.” I try to channel that sense of calm. It has been a valuable strength over the years, particularly as District Attorney.
CP: How did your work as deputy chief in the Manhattan DA’s pioneering Sex Crimes Unit shape your approach to criminal justice?
Dougherty: Sex crime prosecutions are amongst the most meaningful and challenging of cases. There is so much at stake for the victims who have survived unspeakable trauma, for the accused who face incredibly serious consequences, and for the overall safety of the community. My experience with the Sex Crimes Unit in New York helped shape my approach to those cases, as well as the formation of our Workplace Sexual Misconduct Task Force.
My experience in the Sex Crimes Unit in Manhattan helped me to recognize the need for a dedicated and talented staff working on those cases, a solid working relationship with the detectives on sex crime cases, and the ability to fight for the right outcome. Reaching the right outcome in those cases requires having the trust of victims so that they report sex assaults, a screening mechanism to carefully determine what cases should be filed, and a staff that will push to reach the just outcome.
Since the start of 2020, I have conducted two trials involving sexual assaults. As a leader, I believe it is important to help with the actual work and to see firsthand if the process is working as it should.
To augment our work, we formed a Workplace Sexual Misconduct Task Force. One of the goals of the Task Force is to help employers and schools develop trainings, protocols and methods that quickly and comprehensively address reported harassment or misconduct. The Task Force also provides a forum to discuss best practices in areas such as supporting victims, protections for students and employees, and fair processes for the accused.
CP: Can you describe how you transitioned from working for Pete Weir to being the chief law enforcement officer for what’s arguably one of the most progressive electorates in the country?
Dougherty: I love the work that we are doing here in Boulder County. I deeply appreciate what this community wants to see from its District Attorney and it is absolutely in line with how I view our role. This community wants to be kept safe and for serious offenses to be prosecuted well and the right result reached. On low-level offenses, this community wants us to be innovative and thoughtful in how best to help offenders get back on the right track, lower the likelihood of re-offense, and put taxpayer dollars to best use.
Under Pete Weir, the 1st Judicial District developed a robust Diversion Program and problem-solving courts. Those approaches have been proven successful and allow for a long-term investment in community safety – as opposed to the failed cycle of an individual re-offending and returning to the jail over and over again.
For that reason, I am particularly passionate about successful alternatives to incarceration. We have robust restorative justice and diversion programs in Boulder County, including juvenile and adult diversion, a Mental Health Diversion Program that diverts defendants directly into mental health screening and treatment, and specialized diversion for drug possession that diverts cases directly to substance use screening and treatment. Our restorative diversion program has successfully diverted more than 2,000 cases since 2016 and is now diverting more than 50% of juvenile cases in District Court. These programs underscore our Office’s commitment to helping people who take responsibility for their offense to get back on the right track. We do this by making sure that appropriate services are available for young people and adults who need support. Restorative justice, in particular, can be highly effective in meeting victims’ needs and helping defendants understand the impact of their crimes, and restorative justice is a key component of our diversion program. We continue to achieve incredibly positive outcomes – 92% of diversion participants successfully complete the program.
Of course, we must always look at alternative programs in terms of their effect on public safety and their ability to meet victims’ needs, and any new programs would need to meet both these goals. Our low 8.9% recidivism rate shows that our diversion programs are helping connect defendants with needed services that decrease the risk of re-offense, and 99% of victims report satisfaction with our restorative justice program and say that the RJ process will help them move forward.
CP: You’ve moved from a more behind-the-scenes role to a very public one, as an elected official with several campaigns under your belt — for attorney general, in the 2018 DA primary and two general elections, when you’ve run unopposed. How has going in front of the voters and being the public face of your office changed your approach to prosecution?
Dougherty: I feel privileged to serve as an elected official and to have opportunities to talk with the public about the criminal justice system. Especially now, when there are difficult questions being asked of the justice system nationwide, I view our role as particularly important. It’s about having the trust of the community. And as someone who also continues to handle cases and trials, I see the impact of that level of trust in whether witnesses call 911, individuals comply with subpoenas, and whether prospective jurors are inclined to believe law enforcement and prosecutors.
Going in front of the voters and being the public face of the office has also reinforced the importance of transparency and accessibility. I strive to accept every speaking request, answer every email, and share information with the community as much as possible. That is all done with an eye towards building the community’s trust in my Office and the criminal justice system.
There are some differences between speaking with the public and advocating in court. For example, in public, we need to listen more and take in the questions and concerns of the community we are sworn to serve. That role is as important as anything we say. So, as opposed to going to court with a specific plan, I approach interactions with members of the community as conversations, where everyone can share important information.
CP: You played a crucial role bringing a prosecutor’s perspective to the landmark Colorado legislation passed in the wake of the death of George Floyd and the protests that swept the nation this summer. Does more need to be done, and how will we know if what Colorado has done is working?
Dougherty: Across the United States, there have been deeply felt expressions of the anguish and outrage at the murder of George Floyd and others. Until our country fully addresses the problem of racial inequality, we will continue to see racial inequities in our communities and justice systems. We must make real progress. Together, we will weather this storm — and our guiding light must be the shared goal of making real progress.
With the introduction of SB20-217, I had the opportunity to work with legislators and other stakeholders on the legislation. I testified in support of the bill on behalf of all the district attorneys in Colorado. I was honored to testify alongside Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle, who testified on behalf of the county sheriffs of Colorado. As a result of the extensive work and collaboration that went into the process, the district attorneys, chiefs of police and county sheriffs of Colorado supported the final version of the bill.
Our office has been fully and strongly committed to meaningful criminal justice reform. Earlier this year, our office was chosen as one of three sites in the nation for the Vera Institute of Justice’s “Reshaping Prosecution” Program. Their data analysis will focus on racial disparities and inequities, to identify patterns in cases and to generate further policy and reform recommendations.
We continue to expand our robust Diversion and Restorative Justice Programs. Over the past couple of years, we have expanded it by 350%, to include drug cases and low-level felonies. Last year, we diverted more juvenile cases than we prosecuted. Our office maintains a 92% success rate in that program. Our office launched the only pre-charging Mental Health Diversion Program in the state, as well as the first DA Fresh Start Warrant Forgiveness Program in Colorado.
Our office actively supports two areas that Boulder County law enforcement agencies are continuing to implement. The first is a co-responder model, where officers on the street are accompanied by a behavioral health specialist to assist people in need and to de-escalate situations with individuals experiencing mental health crisis. Also, our office has been working with law enforcement to further develop and enhance more LEAD programs (“Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion”) to divert offenders to treatment without having an arrest made at all.
Our office has been able to establish such successful, progressive programs because of the leadership, support, and assistance from the eight law enforcement agencies in Boulder County. Our staff has the honor of working with outstanding men and women in law enforcement every day.
It has been a painful time for our country, but one which can spur us to move forward and make real progress. True, lasting change will only come from working together.
In terms of what more needs to be done, the top priority for our state has to be behavioral health treatment, such as for substance abuse and mental health issues. Our state invests far too little in those needs and our communities are suffering as a result. It is easy to demand that the police improve their response to mental health crises, but Colorado cut the funding for mental health treatment at the exact same time.
Colorado has to take meaningful steps to lower the rate of re-offense in Colorado. At present, our state ranks in the bottom 10 – with roughly 50% of all individuals released from state prison back in state prison within three (3) years. That is a failure for the victims, incarcerated individuals, local communities, and our taxpayers. Much of that failure is due to a lack of investment in behavioral health treatment in the community.
Senate Bill 217 was an important step. But we can’t ask the police to solve mental health issues and addiction. At the same time Senate Bill 217 was being enacted, as reported in The Denver Post, Colorado cut $1 million from a program designed to keep people with mental illness out of the hospital and another million from mental health services for juvenile and adult offenders, reduced funding for substance abuse treatment in county jails by $735,000 and eliminated $5 million earmarked for addiction treatment programs in underserved communities.
If Colorado reallocates resources, instead of cutting them, for substance abuse and mental health treatment in our communities, I do believe that we would see a decline in our high rate of returns to state prison. A person should not need to hit the doors of the courthouse or a cell to get treatment. That’s what we need to address as a state.
CP: How has your office dealt with effects of the pandemic, particularly involving activities that need to happen in-person, face-to-face?
Dougherty: At the onset of the pandemic, the DA’s office moved quickly to enact crisis responses. These efforts have included working with local law enforcement to maintain community safety; developing protocols with the courts to reduce the public presence at the courthouse and move most court appearances to a virtual format; and reducing the jail population without an immediate risk to community safety. We also developed enhanced outreach and advocacy for victims of child abuse, domestic violence and elder abuse. In March, our office had correctly identified these offenses as a growing concern due to the isolation and stress caused by the pandemic.
While Boulder County continues to be a relatively safe and peaceful community, domestic violence takes place behind closed doors – and it is on the rise. Reports of intimate partner violence to law enforcement are trending upward at an alarming rate. For example, the total number of domestic violence cases investigated by the Boulder Police Department increased 31% from March 16 through July 15 compared with the same time period in 2019.The Longmont Police Department reported a 13% increase for the same time period.
Additionally, we secured grant funding under the Coronavirus Emergency Supplemental Funding Program (CESF) from the State of Colorado (Division of Criminal Justice Program). This grant award will allow the DA’s Office to add four new positions, as well as supplies required to sustain and improve our work on the backlog of cases, domestic violence prosecutions, crime data collection and analysis, and diversion and re-entry programs.
We moved witness and staff meetings to virtual format, with many staff working remotely. The transition to virtual platforms for court appearances and meetings went better than I ever expected.
We are living through a ‘forced experiment’, but we can use this experience to identify lessons learned from the pandemic, including positive adaptations that might be carried forward for the years ahead.
CP: What have been the most unexpected and most challenging aspects of making it through 2020, as a district attorney? Have you come up with any solutions you think will outlast the pandemic?
Dougherty: The most unexpected and challenging aspect has simply been the length of time the pandemic will last. It takes a toll on cases, staff and the community. I am very fortunate because the staff is an outstanding and dedicated group of public servants. So, the response to the pandemic has very much been a team effort.
There have been some lessons learned that should outlast the pandemic. I have formed a group to develop a protocol for virtual court appearances beyond the pandemic. The ability to appear in court virtually makes it much easier for defendants who have to miss work and family obligations, arrange for transportation to the courthouse and wait hours for might be a very short appearance. Likewise, the virtual tools make it easier for victims and family members to watch court proceedings. I had a trial last week and the victim’s family “attended” from Colorado Springs. As you can imagine, that was a great help to the victim.
Additionally, we are analyzing the crime data and pre-trial releases during this period to better inform our bond reform efforts, and to give us an improved understanding of the rate of re-offense and crime rates in general.
CP: You’re an extreme distance runner and have completed more than a few ultramarathons, including the Leadville 100 a couple times. Are you getting out on the trails during all this?
Dougherty: Yes, I continue to run a lot. I was actually scheduled to run the Leadville 100 Mile Trail Run for the third time this year. Like most things, it was canceled. So, I am set to run it in 2021. At a time when we are supposed to distance ourselves from others and wear masks, running the trails has been a welcome respite from the pandemic.
Through this pandemic, I often think about past ultras that I have run. Since I am far from a gifted or elite runner, every race has included difficult moments: my stomach dropping out, legs turning to rubber, a sense of utter hopelessness, and so on. You have two choices. You can either quit or keep moving forward. That’s all any of us can do, just keep moving forward. You never know how much strength you have until being strong is the only choice you have left. You do enough of those races and you learn that you can endure the discomfort and difficulty.
So, I think of that often as we move through this pandemic. I am excited for races to start up in 2021. There will be no shortage of motivation, that’s for sure.
CP: Do you have any tales from quarantine you’d like to share? Zoom tips or ways to keep sane?
Dougherty: Running is a major outlet for me. Whether someone is running or not, it is great to get outdoors on a regular basis. Even the strongest amongst us have to recognize that the pandemic has an impact. I consider myself lucky because I go to the office every day, the staff is healthy and my family has remained healthy. So, my foundation is solid.
I limit how much time I spend scrolling through social media because doing so helps to maintain my positive energy and manage my time.
CP: What’s next?
Dougherty: After the year we have had, I am tempted to answer, “alien invasion.” But we will get through these difficult challenges. I am hopeful and excited for the future because the pandemic, social unrest, fires and election year will pass. From it all, I believe that we can improve, come together, and make this country even better. Personally, I am thrilled to start a full, four-year term as district attorney. I love the work we are doing and I am looking forward to the work ahead.