Lawmaker, defense lawyer clash as panel approves speed-up of murder trials
Democrats Just Say No Sens. Richard Miranda, D-13 (left), and Ken Cheuvront, D-15, Judiciary Committee members, express doubts about a bill (S1286) that would speed up death-penalty cases. They later voted against sending the bill to the full Senate, though the majority voted otherwise.
Principally sponsored by the committee’s chairman, Sen. Chuck Gray, R-19, S1286 seeks to ensure that all murder trials begin within 18 months of a defendant’s indictment. It also affects a host of criminal issues pertaining to restitution payments to victims, victim notification and orders of protection.
Currently, the Arizona Supreme Court recognizes approximately 140 pending death penalty cases in Maricopa County alone, and some opponents of the bill say the changes, which include the possibility of only a single 30-day extension granted by the Arizona Supreme Court, could result in more retrials.
But Bill Montgomery, a Republican and former candidate for attorney general who testified in favor of the bill, said it’s necessary to help relatives of murder victims from further stresses brought on by lengthy trials.
“It’s a frustration and a long, grinding road for the family members of a homicide victim,” said Montgomery, who represents crime victims.
Judge James Keppel, presiding criminal judge of Maricopa County Superior Court, objected to the 22-page bill on grounds that it unlawfully allows the Legislature to wade into court procedure and it ignores the fact that more capital cases are being filed while there is a shortage of qualified attorneys to handle them.
“In two years the rate of filings for capital cases has almost doubled,” said Keppel, a former prosecutor.
Capital case defense attorney: Bill creates ‘illusion of justice’
Chris Dupont, a capital case defense attorney, attacked the bill as “creating the illusion of justice,” and said the plan to fast track the cases will hamper the ability of defense attorneys to gather mitigating circumstances such as histories of suffering sexual abuse that defendants are very often hesitant to offer.
He compared the county’s high number of pending death penalty cases to 111 such sentences nationwide last year, and attributed the high number of cases to Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas, whom he labeled an “extremist prosecutor.”
That characterization by Dupont, president of the Arizona Attorneys for Criminal Justice, drew an immediate and forceful rebuke from Gray, R-19, a former Mesa police officer.
“Are you through?” he asked. “Make it quick because I’m not very happy with you right now.”
The interaction demonstrated a growing rift between county prosecutors and defense attorneys working death penalty cases.
Thomas in November issued a press release blaming “excessive delays” in death penalty cases on a combination of “stalling techniques” by defense counsels and “failure” by the courts to enforce rules and deadlines.
An accompanying report stated death penalty cases from date of murder to execution span 19 years on average. In Maricopa County, it takes three years on average for a capital case to go on trial and to receive a verdict, while court rules provide that all cases should be tried within 18 months of a defendant’s arraignment.
In a January column featured in The Arizona Republic, Dupont responded, calling Thomas’ blaming of defense attorneys for the “staggering” number of pending capital cases as “political rhetoric designed to divert attention from his own role in turning us away from mainstream society.”
Tony Novitsky, chief of the Major Crimes Division of the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office, told committee members that juries are responsible for implementing the death penalty in Arizona. In contrast to judges, who implement the punishment in about 10 percent of cases where execution is a legal option, juries seek the penalty in 80 percent of such cases, he said.
“We do not impose the death penalty,” he said. “We give a jury the option of imposing it.”
The process is also hampered by extended periods given to defense counsels seeking mitigating circumstances and reversals for a “mind-boggling” array of reasons, Novitsky said, noting that he has seen a case overturned because a jury saw a defendant in shackles.
The Senate Judiciary Committee voted the bill along party lines. Democrat Senator Ken Cheuvront, D-15, who voted no, said he was concerned the courts and defense attorneys were not consulted on the “vast” legislation.
Republican Ron Gould, R- 3, voted for the measure, stating he believed the long process for death penalty cases minimizes the desired goal of deterrence.
The vote took place the same day Patrick Bearup, 29, was sentenced to death for his role in the 2002 beating and shooting death of Mark Mathes. Mathes’ body was thrown over a cliff in Crown King and discovered a year later by hunters, according to court documents.
Currently 110 inmates in Arizona are awaiting execution. No executions have taken place since November 2000, when Donald Miller received a lethal injection for shooting Jennifer Geuder to death in the desert near Tucson.
Miller had been hired by Geuder’s boyfriend Jose Luna because she was demanding child support payments. She was shot six times in the head and her body was discovered by a jogger, according to records of the Department of Corrections.