Eagle County-based judge wins state award
Judge Paul R. Dunkelman was awarded for his work on the Leigha Ackerson murder trial last fall
Eagle County-based District Court Judge Paul R. Dunkelman has been selected as district court judge of the year for his work on the murder trial of Leigha Ackerson.
Dunkelman was celebrated along with other winners at the Colorado Judicial Institute’s 2021 Judicial Excellence for Colorado awards dinner, which was held at the Hyatt Regency Colorado Convention Center in Denver on Thursday evening.
“Judge Dunkelman was nominated for his work on the high-profile Eagle County murder trial during the height of the pandemic last October,” 5th Judicial District Court Executive Michael Pisciotta said in a written statement Wednesday. “(Dunkelman) took extra precautions to ensure the safety of the jurors while providing public access to justice for the community through the implementation of virtual courtroom technology.”
Facilitating the high-profile trial of Leigha Ackerson amid the second wave of COVID-19 cases last fall was no small feat, Pisciotta said.
The 5th Judicial District coordinated with Eagle County government to set up a remote jury assembly room at the Eagle County Fairgrounds to safely accommodate the high number of potential jurors during jury selection, Pisciotta recalled.
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“We were learning it as we went, and I was lucky enough to be able to have a couple (of) smaller trials before; so I was able to sort of tweak some of our protocols as I found out what worked better,” Dunkelman said in an interview Thursday.
“It really was sort of the culmination of an unprecedented trial for the county and an unprecedented time,” he said.
Dunkelman and his colleagues also set up a remote-viewing room for members of the public who came to watch the trial. They used a secure video platform called Webex to give the public access to what was happening in the courtroom while adhering to social distancing requirements.
“It was important, especially in a trial that impacted the community like that … to make sure there is transparency and it is open to the public, even if the public didn’t have the ability to come into the courtroom,” Dunkelman said.
Dunkelman has served with the 5th Judicial District for eight years since former Gov. John Hickenlooper appointed him in 2013.
Dunkelman said he feels honored to have been selected as district court judge of the year by the Colorado Judicial Institute as he greatly admires the institute’s mission to “engender the public’s trust that the judicial system will provide litigants their day in court with dignity and respect.”
“I don’t think there’s any greater honor, because that should be the mission of everybody who works in the judicial department,” he said. “It’s something that is critical to me — something I think about every time I step out on that bench.”
His nomination for the award also stems from his involvement in the 5th Judicial District’s efforts to promote diversity, equity and inclusion. These efforts are part of a nationwide push to make courtroom officials — judges, attorneys and jurors — more representative of the communities they serve, he said.
So far, this work has centered around diversity, equity and inclusion training for staff, Dunkelman said. The 5th Judicial District has also been meeting with Colorado’s diversity bar associations to recruit attorneys who one day might become judges.
“A lot of it is just education … and trying to create different pathways for a more diverse bench and a more diverse bench becomes a more equitable bench,” he said.
Dunkelman presides over Eagle County’s Recovery Court, an intensive program designed to keep people with multiple drug- or alcohol-related offenses from continuing to reoffend.
In an interview last month, Dunkelman said the Recovery Court is an avenue for bringing about “fundamental change in the criminal justice system.”
“We are all really proud of him,” said Nicola Erb, a spokesperson for the 5th Judicial District Attorney’s Office said in a statement Wednesday.
Dunkelman also oversees the county’s juvenile court.
“I personally have been really touched by how much he cares about our youth,” said Erb, who also serves as the district’s juvenile diversion coordinator. “He sincerely cares about all of them and goes the extra mile to get to know them and their struggles.”
Judge Mark Randall from the 1st Judicial District was selected as county court judicial officer of the year, and Magistrate Sarah Zane from the 16th Judicial District was selected as magistrate of the year.
Email Kelli Duncan at email@example.com