By CARIE CANTERBURY | email@example.com | Cañon City Daily Record
PUBLISHED: July 22, 2022
Fremont County District Court Judge Ramsey Lama was young when Gov. John Hickenlooper appointed him to the bench in January 2016, and he’s still young as he is stepping down. Effective Monday, he’ll still be seen in the courtroom, but it will be without his robe and without the title, “Your Honor.”
Lama cites health and personal reasons for the resignation. Ongoing hip issues began to hinder his ability to continue to sit on the bench for long periods of time, causing extreme pain.
Lama, 41, started to consider his exit from the bench in September 2021 and had plans to announce the decision in January. But before he could make the announcement, Chief Judge Patrick Murphy asked him to take a high-profile case involving Salida resident Suzanne Morphew, who disappeared in 2020. Her husband, Barry Morphew, was set to stand trial for her alleged murder before the District Attorney’s Office dropped his murder charges in April. Lama agreed to stay on for that case but kept his plans close to the chest so as not to distract from the case.
When the Morphew case concluded, Lama made the announcement.
“It was just right for me and my family,” he said. “I’m a single dad, and I wanted something different. Judges have a duty to preside, and I take it so seriously. We have a duty to the community. Jury trials are so rewarding, and I love presiding over them, but it made it hard to control my schedule and that also made me kind of want change.”
But Lama isn’t done working in the legal community, including in Cañon City.
“I am staying in Cañon City,” Lama said. “I love Cañon City, it’s my community. I was honored to have served the people of Fremont for the six and a half years that I did. It was a privilege, I had so many positive experiences.”
He will go back to being a lawyer as a partner with Michael Luchetta of Colorado Springs. Once formally formed, Lama & Luchetta will have offices in Cañon City, Salida and Colorado Springs. Lama will focus on family law and criminal defense, and he is bringing in his former court clerk, Tammy Morrow, as his paralegal.
“I’m excited about something new,” Lama said. “The judicial branch, the criminal justice system, the courts, people getting good rulings – I care about that. I am going to still be serving the community in a different capacity. My hope is that I can be a good asset to the bar, as well, and help folks out in need.”
Reflecting on the last several years, the most difficult part of serving as a judge, Lama said, is all of the tough decisions that must be made.
“It’s truly the social contract,” he said. “We have heavy decisions to make, but somebody has to make them for community safety purposes, for dissolving disputes between folks, maybe it’s civil or otherwise, but in terms of difficult decisions, sentencing is difficult.”
But he said sentencing should be difficult.
“I think it’s a check on that human being who is presiding,” he said. “And especially it’s difficult in major cases where there is harm – like somebody lost a life, somebody died. I always thought the emotions during those hearings are palpable.”
Terminating parental rights also is difficult for a judge, even when the facts on record strongly supported the termination.
Some of the more rewarding parts of the job are presiding over adoptions and jury trials and running into somebody off the bench who would approach him and share that they’ve been sober or thank him for giving them purpose, or a path to treatment.
“Those things have happened to me,” Lama said. “That’s the most rewarding because so often as a judge, I don’t get to see the success stories. If they come back in front of me, it’s usually for something negative, like they weren’t compliant on probation and that can make you sad in that they weren’t successful, but you have to guard against ever becoming jaded or discouraged because you have to recognize you’re seeing the folks who aren’t successful, and surely there are a lot of success stories and they’re not coming back for a good reason.”
No one saw the COVID-19 pandemic coming when it shut down most of the world in March 2020, and pandemic or not, defendants still had constitutional rights and Lama had to find a way to balance that with community safety.
Jury trials were suspended but full criminal dockets continued to move forward, just in a different way.
Things like housing inmates in jails, conducting jury trials while keeping jurors six feet apart and wearing masks, and enforcing orders from the chief judge made things difficult.
“April 2021 — that’s really when the trials resumed, ” Lama said. “We attempted to do trials in 2020; nobody got sick. We had some mistrials because someone started reporting symptoms and we were unable to keep going.”
In a six-month period, beginning in April 2021, Lama’s division processed 11 major felony jury trials, including four homicides, all while on top of processing regular criminal dockets. He credits his staff for pulling that off.
“I am really proud of that moment because we did that, and some of the protocols to keep everybody safe and give a fair trial were somewhat onerous,” Lama said. “But I am proud because not a single participant got sick in that entire six-month period, including jurors, witnesses, defendants, and we honored those very important rights. The protocols that we created under the leadership of Chief Judge Patrick Murphy did work. They kept everybody safe.”
Lama’s successor, Kaitlin Turner, will be sworn in Friday. He has been helping her with the transition over the last few weeks.
“I am wishing her the best, and we’re all rooting for her,” Lama said. “I want her to be successful, and I think she is going to do a good job, I really do.”