Norm Early, Denver’s first Black district attorney, dies at 76

Norman Early, Denver’s first Black district attorney and a pioneer of crime victims’ rights in Colorado, died Thursday from complications of diabetes.

Early, 76, spent a decade as Denver’s top prosecutor, helped to reshape how Colorado treats victims of crime, and strove to increase diversity in the criminal justice system. He was outgoing, a hugger and a charismatic leader, those who knew him said.

“What we would now call a ‘progressive prosecutor’ — Norm was that in 1983,” said Steve Siegel, who spent four decades at the Denver District Attorney’s Office. “Norm used to say, ‘I’d much rather build a child than repair an adult.’ He believed very much in dealing with people as individuals where they were… that they should be held accountable for their behavior but also given a chance to build the parts of their lives that were deficient.”

Early was appointed Denver district attorney in 1983 by then-Gov. Dick Lamm and held the post until 1993, winning elections in 1984, 1988 and 1992. He was a hands-on leader, often walking the office to speak with employees, or sending handwritten notes of encouragement, dubbed “Norm-a-grams,” to prosecutors after big cases.

He brought rookie prosecutors to high schools to talk about the dangers of drunk driving, and he visited schools for career days, too, believing the district attorney’s job was about more than winning cases in the courtroom.

But when he was in court, his skill as a trial attorney was so compelling that his colleagues made a point to watch, said Denver District Attorney Beth McCann. She once asked him for pointers on her own closing argument technique.

“He said, ‘Don’t have a pen in your hand when you are talking to the jury… it looks like you’re pointing it at people and it can be very off-putting,’” she said. “I never had a pen in my hand during a speech after that.”

Early was a founder of the Sam Cary Bar Association and the National Black Prosecutors Association, and he sought to increase diversity among prosecutors, said retired judge Gary Jackson, Early’s friend of five decades. Early was the first Black president of the student body at American University in Washington, D.C., where he graduated in 1967.

“So often in the Black community, prosecutors and the police are looked upon in such a negative fashion,” Jackson said. “Norm tried to change that perception by showing that the Black victims of crimes were being valued and were being listened to.”

Early pushed for Colorado lawmakers to pass the Victim Rights Act, and was instrumental in convincing the state’s other elected district attorneys to support the effort, Siegel said, recalling how naysayers said “no prosecutor would ever get behind it.”

“We walked into the state prosecutors’ meeting to talk about this, and Norm had done his homework, and when it was over there was unanimous support,” he said. “And in those days (the district attorneys) could have killed that bill with a snap of their fingers.”

As district attorney, Early at times faced criticism for his approach, particularly over his decision not to prosecute the alleged killers of Denver talk-show host Alan Berg, who was shot to death by members of a neo-Nazi hit team in 1984, instead relying on a federal civil rights prosecution to secure convictions and 150-year prison sentences.

He faced criticism head-on, said former Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey.

“I learned from Norm Early that it was a tough job, you had to make tough decisions, they weren’t always going to be popular, but if you stood by your ethics and did what you should do, then all they could do is criticize you for doing the right thing,” he said.

Early lost a closely contested race to become Denver’s first Black mayor to Wellington Webb in 1991 in an upset. Early was the more favored and funded candidate but lost steam as the race went on.

“Norm had a very outgoing, gregarious personality,” Webb said.

He first met Early in the 1970s and connected with him over shared political ambitions; Webb wanted to be a state representative, and Early Denver’s first Black district attorney.

After losing the mayoral election, Early, was courted for but turned down a position at the U.S. Department of Justice, not wanting to leave Denver, where he raised his two sons: Ali, who died earlier this year, and Kendall. Early was twice divorced.

Early’s larger-than-life personality, his unmatched charm and smile, helped to make him the center of attention in any room, Siegel said. He remembered one time that he and Early had plans to play golf with an early tee time at Perry Park Country Club and agreed to meet first for breakfast at a truckstop diner.

“I walked in there, and everyone in there was a redneck truck driver,” Siegel said. “And Norm, he played golf in ‘plus fours‘ and a red beanie. I said to the person I was with, ‘This big handsome Black guy is going to come in here, and it’s going to be a scene.’ Then, in comes Norm. And everyone in the room stood up and said, ‘Hey Norm, how are you?’ … He was that kind of guy.”

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