The Arizona Attorney General’s Office is asking lawmakers for $800,000 a year to do death-penalty work it was planning to turn over to the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office.
The attorney general has for 25 years represented the state in post-conviction relief proceedings for death cases in all counties, but soured in recent years on bearing the cost and burdens associated with the scores of cases that flow from Maricopa County. Post-conviction relief is the process in which an inmate raises new issues that weren’t part of the trial, such as an ineffective defense attorney, a cheating prosecutor, or newly found evidence.
Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey Zick told the Joint Legislative Budget Committee on Dec. 17 that the county agreed to take the work earlier this year, but the attorney general did an about-face for the sake of continuity in the cases.
Zick said if the county takes over the post-conviction relief proceedings, representation would bounce back and forth between them as cases move from phase to phase in the appeals system, causing problems such as lost files and lack of uniformity.
“We did not feel it was good government having these cases bounce back and forth,” Zick said.
The legislative council tabled the proposal, and some lawmakers weren’t very receptive to the attorney general’s proposal.
“If we can save $800,000 and Maricopa County is willing to do this, I question why we would want to do it,” said Rep. Debbie Lesko, a Peoria Republican.
Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, suggested that Maricopa County pay the state to do the work.
A death-penalty case starts with a trial in Superior Court, moves to the state Supreme Court, back to Superior Court for post-conviction relief if the high court upholds the conviction, and then to the U.S District Court for a federal appeal. The county attorney represents the state only in the trial phase. The attorney general is required by law to represent the state before the Supreme Court and in federal court, but not in post-conviction relief proceedings.
Counties formerly did post-conviction relief themselves, but the attorney general took it over about 25 years ago because there was too much inconsistency between the counties, and federal courts were overturning cases, Zick said.
Zick said post-conviction relief proceedings as recently as 10 years ago could be handled through written briefs, but they have become exceedingly complex over the years due to several U.S. Supreme Court opinions. Post-conviction relief issues are also tied more these days to federal appeals.
“Now they are being litigated as if they are a resentencing before the trial court, so there has to be a lot of expert testimony, a lot of litigation is put forth in the case itself,” Zick said.
Zick said the attorney general wasn’t set up to handle an avalanche of cases headed its way from Maricopa County, prompting the state prosecutor to ask the county prosecutor to take them over last year.
The attorney general convinced lawmakers in the 2013 session to appropriate $500,000 for fiscal year 2014 for post-conviction relief cases, and the attorney general had to submit a plan for turning over representation to Maricopa County.
Rebecca Baker, a lobbyist with the County Attorney’s Office, said her agency was willing to accept the responsibility slowly over five years.
Zick said the state is going to have to spend money even if the transition takes place.
“You would see further litigation in federal court because of what is occurring in state court because of the non-uniformity of representation,” Zick said.
— Source: Capital Case Oversight Committee report to the Arizona Judicial Council.
Capital Cases Pending Trial in Arizona by County: 2008 to 2013
La Paz: 0
Santa Cruz: 0