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Silverman: Former Denver District Attorney Norm Early was a fierce advocate for victims’ rights

Former Denver District Attorney Norm Early died recently at age 76. A former governor called Early “the best trial lawyer I ever watched.”  

Norm Early, left, and former Denver Mayor Wellington Webb in June 1991. Donated to the Denver Public Library by the Rocky Mountain News.

When Norm Early entered a room, people took notice.  Norm was tall, with broad shoulders, a powerful chest and solid arms. Norm’s full head of hair framed a handsome, mustachioed face that lit up any venue when he smiled, which happened frequently. Rooms reverberated with Norm’s infectious booming laugh, now silenced forever at age 76.

A track star at American University, Early considered joining Alpha Tau Omega fraternity until he learned Blacks weren’t allowed. Angered but determined, Early instead joined the Jewish fraternity, Zeta Beta Tau, and went on to become AU’s first African American elected student government president. Norm was a natural leader.

Craig Silverman

Early honed his skills in Denver under the tutelage of legendary Denver DA Dale Tooley. Arriving in 1973, Norm became a Chief Deputy DA, working front-line prosecutions his first decade in Denver. His next decade was spent as the Denver DA, and as my most important and impactful boss.

In his last interview, Norm told me that when Dale Tooley departed in 1983 to run again for mayor, a powerful Democratic leader told him a Black DA could not be elected in Denver. That infuriated and energized Early and his friend, Richard (Dick) Kaye of Lloyd’s Furs’ fame. Kaye pledged campaign support and personally spoke to Gov. Dick Lamm. 

Lamm selected Tooley’s replacement from between three Denver veteran prosecutors: Dick Spriggs, Norm Early and Beth McCann. At Early’s interview, Lamm told him that Spriggs was the safe choice, to which Norm retorted “Yes, but I would be a bold one.

Lamm was a bold governor who demanded law and order. Under Tooley, the Denver DA’s Office was an exceptional law firm. Top talent was recruited and went to trial far more often than any prosecutor’s office in Colorado.  We had plenty of serious crime in Denver from which to gain experience and perspective. 

Early’s Denver DA’s Office was specifically tough on crimes against persons. Lamm appointed similarly inclined judges. The Colorado legislature had powerful Republicans, such as future Gov. Bill Owens, also demanding harsher sanctions. Sentencing ranges for violent crimes increased dramatically

Early may be the last Denver DA to deliver a defendant to Colorado’s death row. Shortly after promoting me to Chief Deputy DA in 1985, Early asked me to seek a death verdict against Frank Rodriguez

Lorraine Martelli, age 54, was carjacked at 5th and Broadway. Rodriguez and his younger brother brutalized her for hours before Frank Rodriguez stabbed her 28 times at 8th and Decatur, and then stuffed her into the trunk of her Monte Carlo. Early gave me the week I needed to consult my conscience and read the file. 

Utilizing the death penalty was a difficult decision for Early, but he told me recently that he made the right decision on Rodriguez. Early had a well-deserved reputation for being tough on violent crime. That reputation was enhanced when he personally participated in prosecuting prolific serial rapist Quintin Wortham

Early shrewdly assigned David Olivas, a talented and hard-working prosecutor, to co-prosecute the Wortham case, which eventually resulted in Wortham’s 400-year prison sentence.  The manipulative mass rapist represented himself, flustering Judge Edward Carelli. A mistrial was declared mid-trial, and the case started over months later with me joining the prosecution team.

At the next trial, with Lamm-appointed Judge Lynne Hufnagel presiding, Wortham’s many victims gained their power back, turning tables on their rapist while testifying. Olivas and I were invigorated partnering with the boss on such a significant case. We deployed winning strategies that convicted Wortham in Denver, and again, in Aspen (after a change of venue) on Colorado’s first DNA case. 

Olivas and I became close friends and then law partners for decades, all thanks to Early pairing us together. Olivas remembers how, as an Army veteran from New Mexico, he warned Early about being from the wrong side of the tracks. Early responded that whatever David experienced in the past “will help you make good decisions in the future for the people that you prosecute.” He was correct.

As Early proved in the Wortham case, and countless other times, he prioritized the feelings and rehabilitation of victims, not defendants. Under Norm’s leadership the Denver DA’s Office fiercely advocated for victim rights, culminating in Colorado’s Constitutional Referendum A being approved in 1992 with over 80% of the vote.   

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The best thing a prosecutor can do for a victim is determine what happened and then prove it at trial. Early understood this, and he wanted competitive people, like himself, to fight hard as prosecutors for truth and justice. That meant frequently going to battle in courtrooms — and winning.

Former Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter was an exceptionally talented Denver courtroom prosecutor in the 1980s. Early recognized and rewarded Ritter’s ability with fast promotions. Bill returned Norm’s compliment, telling me on Saturday that Norm was “the best trial lawyer I ever watched.”  

We mourn Norm’s passing. The Denver DA family lost another of its foremost leaders ever. So did Colorado. Norm Early’s memory is a blessing now.


Craig Silverman is a former Denver chief deputy DA who also has worked in the media for decades. Craig is columnist at large for The Colorado Sun. He practices law at the Denver law firm of Springer & Steinberg, P.C. and is host of The Craig Silverman Show podcast.


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