Acting Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley has dropped the death penalty in 11 murder cases since he began running the office in April, and he will determine whether 22 others should remain as capital cases before he leaves office in November.
Most of the cases come from the era of former County Attorney Andrew Thomas, who left the office in an unsuccessful bid for Arizona attorney general and who some say played a major role in creating a logjam of capital cases with his aggressive approach to the death penalty, which included frequently overruling recommendations for lighter sentences from a panel of seasoned prosecutors.
“Rick and I wanted to make sure the cases seeking the death penalty satisfied the office’s charging standards,” said Paul Ahler, Romley’s chief deputy.
Romley, who was appointed interim county attorney April 16, declined to be interviewed, stating that some cases were still pending.
Romley’s decision to drop the death penalty in 11 cases will help eliminate a backlog of capital cases, which three years ago was deemed a crisis and led to the formation of the Capital Case Oversight Commission to solve the problem.
Thomas was well-known for his aggressive “seek-the-max” philosophy toward prosecution, and he was often criticized for pushing the limits on death-penalty cases. But when he resigned to run for state attorney general, Romley stepped in and immediately overhauled some of Thomas’ signature policies.
County managers blamed Thomas for the glut, complaining he filed too many death cases that ended in lesser sentences after years in the system, and deputy county attorneys said he frequently overruled a committee of veteran prosecutors when they recommended against death.
“It happened several times,” Ahler said. “I won’t comment on which cases, but it did happen.”
Philip MacDonnell, former chief deputy for Thomas, said some of the blame for creating the logjam was unfairly laid at Thomas’ feet.
“There’s a lot of politics on this and a lot of agendas,” said MacDonnell, who served on the Oversight Commission. “And basically people are trying to say the County Attorney’s Office filed too many cases, this other county doesn’t file as many cases, Romley didn’t file as many cases, or whatever their theme was.”
The panel of prosecutors, known as the Capital Review Committee, was originally put in place during Romley’s first tenure in office from 1989 to 2004. Although Romley will leave office by the end of this year, Bill Montgomery, the presumptive winner of the general election, said he will keep the Capital Review Committee in place.
“I don’t see any major changes,” Montgomery said.
MacDonnell said he had no data to show how often Thomas overruled the committee, but it was his impression that Thomas did it most often at the beginning of his time in office and less frequently as he learned from prosecutors which cases juries were inclined to return a death verdict.
“There were fact patterns that repeated themselves and we learned from that,” he said.
MacDonnell said juries tend to vote for death for killers who plan their acts or have time to reflect upon what they are doing before acting. Juries often show leniency for crimes of passion or where there was a quick decision.
“If someone were setting out to do an execution and they planned to do this execution, then that was a high likelihood of death, whereas if these gangbangers started shooting at each other, very unlikely,” he said.
Of the 11 cases Romley dropped the death penalty, three of them are still going to trial and could yield lifetime prison sentences.
According to court records, the county attorney gives no reason for dropping the death penalty in two of the cases except for “interests of justice.” One of the cases involves a cab driver accused of shooting a customer and dumping his body in the desert, while the other involves a Mesa woman accused of killing her 3-year-old niece, who suffered a snapped spine and torn aorta. The cab driver is claiming self defense.
The third case involves a 46-year-old Scottsdale man who cut the throat of the 83-year-old father of his girlfriend. The state and defense agreed to dismiss the death penalty if a judge gave them an extended continuance so they could explore whether inhalants cause psychotic behavior, according to court records.
There were three cases, one of them dating to Romley’s previous tenure, where the jury convicted the defendant on a murder charge, but then came to an impasse on the death sentence. Romley had the option of seating a new jury to decide whether to impose the death penalty, but he settled two cases instead by agreeing to sentences of life without parole. A judge sentenced the third defendant to life without parole.
Three more defendants pleaded guilty to murder charges and will serve life sentences, another pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, and one case was dismissed.
The dismissed case involved Lisa Randall, a 49-year-old Peoria woman charged in the death of an infant she was caring for in her home.
Romley said in a July 22 press release that experts determined the baby did not die from blunt force trauma as originally believed and the cause of death was undetermined.
Retired Supreme Court Justice Michael Ryan, who chairs the Capital Case Oversight Commission, said eliminating 11 capital cases in such a short period of time is a rare occurrence, but there is still work to be done.
“The number of pending capital cases in the Superior Court is not at an optimal level,” Ryan said. “It is much better than prior years when there were more than 130 pending cases, but 80 or so cases is still a strain on the system, which includes defense attorneys, prosecutors and the judges.”
According to the most recent statistics, the number of pending cases has steadily declined from 131 in October 2008 to 84 in July.
Statistics show that Romley and Thomas consistently filed about the same number of capital cases over the years, although it is only in recent years that the court, prosecutors and defense attorneys have agreed on how to count capital cases. In 2006, however, Thomas filed 11 more death-penalty cases than he did the prior year and the following year.
According to county memos, the glut of cases and the increased costs of providing publicly funded defense teams for them can be tied to a perfect storm of circumstances, the first of which was the 2002 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Ring v. Arizona, which changed the rules of capital sentencing and led to retrials in 14 cases. Those cases artificially inflated the inventory; the last one was resolved this year.
Ryan said death-penalty cases were bogged down because there weren’t enough qualified defense attorneys to represent each of the defendants.
The question now is what the future holds.
Montgomery, who often found himself during the campaign trying to convince people he wasn’t a clone of Thomas, said he is going to weigh each death-penalty case on its facts and without any political calculations.
“I can’t say I would be more aggressive or less aggressive than any other county attorney,” he said.