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New assistant AGs violated orders on sealed documents

Sealed-DocumentsTwo newly hired assistant attorney generals who work on capital cases violated court orders forbidding them from reading sealed documents when they were with the Pinal County Attorney’s Office.

One of the attorneys, Jason Easterday, was chairman of the Pinal County Attorney’s Ethics Committee and worked on attorney discipline cases for the State Bar of Arizona. The other, Gregory Hazard, testified he would violate court orders again to read sealed documents.

The violations led Gila County Superior Court Judge Peter Cahill on July 8 to disqualify the Pinal County Attorney’s Office from prosecuting the death-penalty case in which the misconduct happened.

Cahill found that the attorneys disregarded an order issued by Pinal County Superior Court Judge Joseph Georgini sealing a defense motion for medical records of the victim in the case.

The violations could lead to discipline for both attorneys by the State Bar of Arizona. However, both attorneys, who were hired on Nov. 9, are still working on cases for the attorney general’s capital litigation section.

Stephanie Grisham, a spokeswoman for the Attorney General’s Office, declined comment on the matter.

Bret Huggins, the attorney representing Richard T. Wilson, the defendant in the case in which the Pinal County Attorney’s Office was disqualified, said the actions of the prosecutors erode public confidence, especially since there have been bungled executions in Arizona and elsewhere recently and several death-row prisoners have been exonerated.

“Anybody who’s following what’s going on with the death penalty nationally and the wrongful convictions, where we’ve had those in Arizona, has got to be just incredibly concerned,” Huggins said.

It isn’t the first time the office has hired someone embroiled in a courtroom cheating scandal. Richard Wintory, the chief deputy for Pinal County, was with the Attorney General’s Office when he secretly communicated with someone on the defense team in a death-penalty case. Wintory was suspended for 90 days on March 15, and he was in the middle of the situation with Easterday and Hazard, according Cahill’s order.

Easterday’s and Hazard’s misconduct came in a death penalty case involving Wilson, who is accused of murdering fellow Arizona prisoner Nolan Pierce in March 2012.

Huggins filed a motion in court asking for help in acquiring Pierce’s medical and mental records as part of the case for Wilson’s leniency. Georgini allowed Huggins to file the motion ex-parte, or without letting the state see the motion or the fruits of it.

Typically, both parties in litigation have access to documents filed with the court, but Arizona’s rules of criminal procedure allow for ex-parte filings in capital cases. Georgini ordered the pleadings to be sealed.

The Pinal County Attorney’s Office had access to the sealed documents through a Clerk of the Court terminal in the office that was supposed to be used only for victim services.

Pinal County Attorney Lando Voyles issued a press release July 30, 2013, announcing that a paralegal doing a routine records check discovered the sealed motions. Voyles said such requests are supposed to be shared with the state because it has the duty to protect the rights of the victim.

The paralegal took the documents, which were clearly marked as sealed, to Hazard, who read them and took them to Wintory. Easterday also read them, Cahill’s order says.

Hazard justified violating the court orders by saying the paralegal unintentionally came across them and Georgini was wrong in sealing the documents.

“Finally,” Cahill wrote, “Mr. Hazard testified that under these same circumstances today — where a paralegal brought him accessed, sealed records, he would do again just what he did here.”

Voyles said his office is still reviewing the ruling to determine the appropriate response.

Rick DeBruhl, State Bar spokesman, said investigators with the bar are deciding whether an investigation is necessary and who should be targeted.

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