David Eisner has never been a courtroom rager.
The longtime Grand Junction defense attorney is known more for his soft-spoken manner, his extreme attention to detail, and the trademark bow ties he's sported since the mid-'80s, than for raucous courtroom antics.
After more than four decades defending the criminally accused in Colorado — and a Mesa County career bookended by trial victories — Eisner will retire after handling one last sentencing Tuesday.
Recognized by peers as a brilliant attorney who contributed to the quality of Colorado's public defense system during his years handling death penalty cases across the state and heading Grand Junction's public defender office, Eisner "definitely was a mentor" to a generation of defense attorneys, said Steve Colvin, Grand Junction's current public defender office head.
"He was one of the leaders of the public defender system for years and years," Colvin said. "I have spent 24 years of being a public defender trying to be half as good as Dave was."
Eisner became enamored of criminal defense work when he worked in a legal aid clinic during law school. After joining the bar and spending several years in private practice in Boulder, Eisner started with the Colorado State Public Defender's office in Brighton in 1978, ultimately becoming the office's head before being recruited by then Colorado State Public Defender David Vela in Denver. As chief deputy public defender starting in 1982, Eisner spent five years working from Denver and traveling around the state to work on death penalty cases, fighting against what he described as an often arbitrary sentence.
"There weren't really any standards to guide a prosecutor as to when they decided to go for the death penalty," Eisner said, recalling one case where the death penalty was dropped by a prosecutor after the defendant was paralyzed after being shot by a police officer who witnessed his dramatic flight attempt from a courthouse.
After his work on death penalty cases, Eisner took a few years to work in private practice in Boulder while helping to raise his children.
In 1993, Eisner moved west to take over as head of Grand Junction's public defender office. The job came with a string attached, however. Before taking over leadership duties at the office, he had to handle the case of a Fruita Monument High School student accused of murdering his ex-girlfriend.
For months, Eisner said, he worked exclusively on Jason Romero's case before it went to trial. Romero was acquitted. It was, Eisner recalled, a "great trial."
"I guess it was an example where if you have unlimited time and resources, you can really do a lot on a case," he said.
The jury returned a not-guilty verdict in Romero's case on a Friday, and Eisner stepped into his new leadership role the next Monday. During the years that followed, he built a reputation in Grand Junction as a meticulous trial attorney.
Former Mesa County District Attorney Pete Hautzinger said he recalled going head to head with Eisner during his first solo murder prosecution in 1993, the same year Eisner took over Grand Junction's public defender office. Eisner was, he said, "not a blazing, pound the table with fiery rhetoric kind of guy, but very thoughtful and careful and articulate."
Hautzinger said the case — against Deon Caballero, who would later be convicted of shooting a pawn shop owner during a robbery — involved several days of pre-trial motions hearings where Eisner challenged the ability of various witnesses to identify his client. Eisner, according to Hautzinger, cross-examined witnesses in excruciating detail.
"At one point, I was so exasperated with just the level of detail he was going into and I rolled my eyes, whereupon Dave filed a motion to take into account the fact that I was rolling my eyes," Hautzinger said, laughing. "Very definitely a zealous advocate for his client. … He certainly gave every defendant he represented that I was prosecuting way more than their money's worth out of Dave Eisner."
Courtly manners aside, Eisner managed to ruffle some feathers during his tenure. While handling the much-publicized 2004 murder trial of Michael Blagg, Eisner raised eyebrows when he sought to admit evidence of an alternate suspect: a then Mesa County prosecutor who had been romantically rejected by a woman who lived on the same block as Blagg. Now-retired Judge David Bottger wasn't pleased.
"Judge Bottger, I don't want to say 'exploded,' but he was extremely critical of us," Eisner recalled, before adding, "But it wasn't something that we made up. … The Sheriff's Office had actually explored it."
When asked whether the prosecutor ever forgave him, Eisner paused for a moment.
"We greet each other," he said. Eisner said his career as a public defender lasted longer than most, something he attributed in part to the lunchtime run that was long his daily habit. He left the public defender's office in 2007, intending to work in private practice for about five more years before retiring. Instead, he stayed 10.
Eisner has somewhat tapered off his practice over the past decade, and officially finished his career on a high last month with a trial victory for client Brenda Maggio. Maggio was accused of drug charges including marijuana possession with intent to distribute after Mesa County sheriff's deputies found more than 30 pounds of marijuana in her basement.
Eisner successfully argued at trial that Colorado law doesn't limit how much marijuana someone can possess if it comes from a legal grow.
"It was a good way to end," he said. "It's been a wonderful career. … You have hard-working people in all aspects of the criminal justice system, and it works. It works well here. I'm proud to have been a part of it."
And in retirement? Eisner plans to spend his time with his wife and children, definitely outside the confines of the office or courthouse, and only rarely take up his beloved bow ties.