Crista Newmyer-Olsen’s dedication to doing the right thing has guided her career. Born and raised in the San Luis Valley of Colorado, Newmyer-Olsen currently fights for justice as the district attorney in the 12th Judicial District.
Law wasn’t always on Newmyer-Olsen’s radar. She didn’t even consider law school until about two weeks before graduating from undergrad at the University of Colorado. “I realized a degree in English and sociology would allow me to be a very well-spoken waitress,” she joked.
Newmyer-Olsen connected with local attorneys at the Native American Rights Fund (NARF) and decided a law career was the right path for her. “I saw inspirational attorneys fighting the good fight and I decided then that I wanted to go to law school,” she said. “Walter Echo-Hawk inspired me to pursue a legal career in American Indian law.”
With a strong American Indian Law program and former Dean David Getches’ involvement with NARF, Colorado Law was a natural choice for Newmyer-Olsen. “American Indian law was how I was introduced to law,” she said. “It was clear to me that this was where the fight for justice was.”
As a law student, Newmyer-Olsen took primarily American Indian law classes. Her favorite professors included Jill Tompkins, then-clinical professor in the American Indian Law Clinic, and Professor Emeritus Charles Wilkinson, whom Newmyer-Olsen remembers fondly as a “wonderful professor in addition to a delightful human being.” Former Associate Professor Clare Huntington also made Newmyer-Olsen’s list of favorite professors: “Professor Huntington taught Women and Law and Domestic Violence. She was very engaging and the most amazing professor,” she remembered.
In addition to her studies, Newmyer-Olsen also worked at a property management company part-time and raised her daughter, who was born during finals of her second year in law school. “After my first year, I became better at focusing on what was important,” she said. “I learned not to get caught up in the details.”
Her employment at the property management company provided Newmyer-Olsen with leadership skills that she uses to this day. “Laurie Gray was the best boss I have ever had,” she recalled. “She has informed the administrative side of what I do in the district attorney’s office. She had a good handle on the fact that your job is not your life. She was understanding of the chaos of law school and family but also expected me to do my job when I was in the office.”
After she graduated from law school, Newmyer-Olsen dedicated her time and energy to what she saw as fighting the good fight. “I interned at NARF after I graduated while I awaited my bar results,” she said. “Afterward, I started at Smith & Jolly, an American Indian law firm in Denver. I did a lot of civil work and represented the social services department of the Ponca Tribe in Nebraska. The firm also represented the Hopi Tribe in New Mexico and Arizona.”
Unfortunately, only a year after Newmyer-Olsen graduated from Colorado Law, the 2008 recession brought the economy crashing to a halt and Newmyer-Olsen left her employment with Smith & Jolly. “Suddenly there was a shortage of law jobs. I applied for over 50 positions, some of which were even not even legal positions,” she remembered. “It was complete serendipity that I landed a job as deputy district attorney in my hometown of Alamosa.”
“I had no litigation experience, and I didn’t take criminal procedure in law school,” she said. “When I took the job, I didn’t even know the difference between county court and district court. The first year at the district attorney’s office was like drinking water from a firehose. The 12th Judicial District is very rural, the caseload is high, and the learning curve is steep.” Despite the difficulties, Newmyer-Olsen fell in love with the work of a district attorney.
The 12th Judicial District is in the San Luis Valley of rural, southwestern Colorado. “The primary benefit of working in a rural area is the kind of work I’ve been able to do since I started,” she noted. “As a deputy, I didn’t spend my first five years in traffic court. I started handling the felony docket right off the bat and got to sink my teeth into meaningful work. Additionally, I grew up in the San Luis Valley and this is my home.”
However, the six counties of the 12th Judicial District include four of the ten poorest counties in Colorado. “One of the greatest difficulties of working in such a rural area is the limited resources. We’re in a constant financial struggle,” she said. “However, we’re very lucky because the Colorado District Attorney’s Council is wonderful in helping us out if we need assistance. For example, the 18th Judicial District has been really helpful in a number of our cases. Additionally, the Attorney General’s Violent Crime Assistance Unit also helped us convict Daniel Bessey in Monte Vista, which is probably one of the proudest moments in my career.”
Outside of court, Newmyer-Olsen enjoys spending time with her family and her menagerie of cats, dogs, and horses. “I like to say I pay for my pets instead of therapy,” she quipped. “I also have a very blended family with my husband. Between us, we have seven children and one grandchild. Three children live in our home and they keep me grounded,” she said. “My husband is very supportive and goes out of his way to help out when I’m busy with trial.”
What is your fondest memory of being a student at Colorado Law?
My fondest memory of being a student at Colorado Law is learning from top-notch faculty in every area of the law. The professors I learned from are brilliant attorneys and effective instructors.
What do you know now that you wish you had known in law school?
I wish I had known about the prosecution function in law school. Most criminal law courses and conversations are dedicated to the defense function. I knew absolutely nothing about what prosecutors do until I became one. I wish I had known earlier.
What advice would you give to current students as they’re preparing to graduate?
Do not allow apparent setbacks in your career to discourage you. Keep an open mind. The one type of law you swear you don’t want to practice now may be exactly what you are meant to do.
Who was the biggest influence on your career?
Walter Echo-Hawk, Sr. But for his influence and example, I would never have gone to law school.
Of what accomplishment are you most proud?
At the moment, I am most proud of the imperfect but adequate balance I maintain between my career and my family. With respect to my prosecutorial career, I am proud of being an attorney who focuses on doing the right thing each and every day. Often, that makes the community I love a little safer for all of us.