Community remembers Norm Early, Denver’s first Black district attorney and victim rights advocate

Tony Gorman/CPR News
Kendall Early, the youngest son of Norm Early, Jr., talks about his dad’s impact in Denver. A memorial was held Thursday for Denver’s first Black district attorney who passed away last month at the age of 76.

Family, colleagues, and friends gathered at Empower Field at Mile High Stadium Thursday afternoon to remember Norm Early, Jr, Denver’s first Black District Attorney. The victims’ rights advocate and former mayoral candidate passed away last month at the age of 76.

“The individuals who spoke all of them, so grateful for their words,” said Kendall Early, Norm Early's youngest son. “There were common themes throughout of his huge, humongous laugh, his amazing hugs and all the amazing things that he accomplished.

Early was elected DA three times in 1984, 1988, and 1992 before resigning to run for Denver Mayor in 1993. He lost a close race to Wellington Webb, Denver’s first Black mayor. Current Denver Mayor Micheal Hancock cited Early’s mayoral bid as a reason for his successful election campaign. He remembered Early losing ground in the race and refused to “go negative” against his advisors’

“I never forgot that. When it came my time and we had tough times in the race, I heard Norm’s voice say, “Don’t ever lose who you are in victory or defeat,” Hancock said. “Stay true to who you are and that made a difference for me.”

In Colorado, the Washington, D.C., native is widely known as Denver’s first Black DA. But, it wasn’t the first time he was the first Black to hold a leadership position. It was at American University. In 1966, he was the school’s first Black-elected student government president. Early proceeded to reorganize the student government representation based upon school enrollment and area of residence. He also competed in track and field where he still holds the school record in the long jump.

Early earned a law degree from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign College of Law. He came to Denver on a fellowship to assist underserved communities. After passing the bar, he worked for the Legal Aid Society of Metropolitan Denver as a Reginald Heber Smith Fellow.

Early joined the Denver District Attorney’s Office in 1973 as a deputy district attorney under Dale Tooley. He moved up the ranks eventually becoming Chief Deputy District Attorney. Early was appointed District Attorney in 1983 after Tooely resigned in a third unsuccessful bid for mayor. 

Tony Gorman/CPR News
Kendall Early and former Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter share a laugh after the memorial for the late Denver District Attorney Norm Early, Jr.

Former Colorado Governor Bill Ritter knew Early for 40 years. He first worked under him as the Deputy DA. He succeeded him in 1993 and remained in the office for 12 years. He remembers Early as one of the best trial lawyers that ever practiced in Denver. R

“He was a thing to behold in the courtroom. He was a man who cared deeply, deeply about the justice system and about justice for all,” Ritter said. “Norm was about diversity, equity, and inclusivity before it was kind of fashionable to be that way. He ran the DA’s office that way. He cared about defendants and victims alike.”

Retired attorney Jim Hurd’s personal and professional relationships spanned six decades going back to their days at Calvin Coolidge High School in Washington, D.C. Early brought Hurd to the Denver DA’s office. Hurd eventually served as Early’s Chief Deputy District Attorney’s Office. He said that Early prided himself on excellence which impacted Black lawyers.

"Back when we started practicing law as prosecutors back in the 70s, they had guides on how you were supposed to act as a prosecutor and how you were supposed to dress and what you were supposed to say. We quickly found out that it didn’t work so well for Black prosecutors,” Hurd said. “Norm was one of the biggest proponents of that. We had to play by a different set of rules. We couldn’t dress down, we had to dress up. We had to have a little different personality in the courtroom for those who didn’t look like us.”

Early was the co-founder of the Sam Cary Bar Association and the National Black Prosecutors Association. Representatives from both organizations presented resolutions honoring Early.