A stern prosecutor

New deputy district attorney has tried the beaches and the mountains

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Michael Stern is no stranger to the courtroom -- whether it's on an island in the Pacific, or the Caribbean or in the mountain towns of Southwest Colorado.

With 32 years as an attorney, Stern, the newest deputy district attorney in Moffat County, has worked as a prosecutor in Guam, the Virgin Islands and the Colorado's Seventh Judicial District. He also has experience as a defense lawyer in Montrose.

The 57-year-old came to Craig in August after working for seven months as a weapons prosecutor on the Caribbean island of St. Croix.

"Colorado really is the only place I ever thought about coming back to," he said.

St. Croix was 'different'

Although St. Croix is a beautiful place to live, it can be a difficult place to practice law, Stern said.

"It was a hard place to really feel as though the island government was one that you could be productive with," Stern said. "Island governments just are different."

Stern was supposed to be part of a team of 16 prosecutors on the island of 50,000 people. But when he left, there were just three prosecutors.

The problems in the prosecutor's office made some cases difficult.

There was a triple homicide that Stern prosecuted, but the blood sample he hoped to use as evidence was thrown out because it was never properly tested.

"They have an interesting legal scheme," he said.

Small-town man

When stern decided it was time to leave the Caribbean and come back to Colorado, he didn't end up in Craig by chance.

"I made a conscious decision on Craig because I like the smaller town feel," he said.

Stern is from Chicago, but having lived in such small Colorado towns as Montrose and Gunnison, he wanted to go back.

When people in small towns ask how you are, they actually care about the answer, he said.

"I like Colorado without Starbucks," Stern said.

Stern also is an avid hiker, runner and cross-country skier, so Northwest Colorado gives him the chance to pursue a variety of outdoor activities with "varying levels of mediocrity."


Meth country

Stern also came to Craig prepared to work in a DA's Office where methamphetamine-related cases are common.

In Guam, where Stern worked as a prosecutor for violent crimes, there also was a significant meth problem.

Most of the armed robberies and homicides Stern dealt with on the tiny island were meth related.

For some of the worst criminals in Guam, meth was seen as too disgusting to touch.

Stern knew a heroin dealer who had a strange sense of pride in the fact that he never dealt meth, just heroin.

"He wouldn't stoop so low to sell meth," Stern said.

On the other hand, Stern said, some meth users viewed it as an almost healthy alternative to heroin and cocaine.

A trying occupation

Whether it is a meth case on Guam, a gun case on St. Croix or an alcohol case in Craig, Stern said the best part of his job is being in the courtroom.

"To me, the most fun you can have in the practice of law is doing trials," he said.

Even so, Stern said he had an obligation to avoid unnecessary ones. That means plea bargaining some cases, which isn't a very popular alternative for some residents of Moffat County.

Determining what cases should go to trial and what cases -- for the good of the victim and the benefit of society -- should be plea-bargained, is an ongoing challenge for prosecutors.

"It is not always an easy thing to know," Stern said.

No room for violence

Stern said his biggest concern always has been violent crime.

While Craig is an area with less crime than other parts of the state, Stern said it doesn't really matter how much crime there is.

"My own personal view is, when you are the victim of a crime, there is too much crime," he said.

Stern sees prosecutors as the lawyer for the victims.

"You can't keep the crime from having been committed," Stern said. "But at least, to the extent possible, you can make them feel like someone cares."

Brandon Johansson can be reached at 824-7031, ext. 213, or bjohansson@craigdailypress.com.

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