Clemency Board urges reduced sentence for cop in 2010 killing

Rachel Leingang//March 1, 2018

Clemency Board urges reduced sentence for cop in 2010 killing

Rachel Leingang//March 1, 2018

The Arizona Board of Executive Clemency has recommended reducing the prison sentence of a former Phoenix police officer who killed a man in 2010 while responding to domestic violence.

Richard Chrisman
Richard Chrisman

Richard Chrisman was sentenced in 2013 to seven years in prison for manslaughter, along with a five-year concurrent sentence for aggravated assault for killing an unarmed man, Daniel Rodriguez, during a call at a south Phoenix trailer.

The Clemency Board recommended in December that the governor cut Chrisman’s sentence to time served. His sentence is set to expire in September 2020.

Gov. Doug Ducey has until March 27 to decide whether to grant the commutation, his office said. No decision has been made on Chrisman’s case yet, Ducey spokesman Patrick Ptak said in an email.

“We are carefully reviewing the recommendation from the board, as we do for all clemency requests that reach our office,” Ptak said.

The board referred to a letter from the judge who sentenced Chrisman, Judge Warren Granville of Maricopa County Superior Court, who wrote in support of the commuted sentence. Granville’s letter said he would have imposed a less harsh sentence if he could have, but there were mandatory minimum sentence guidelines.

“While it is tragic that the victim lost his life as a result of Mr. Chrisman’s actions, those actions were caused by a good faith subjective belief of justification that was deemed not reasonable objectively,” Granville wrote.

He asked the board to consider Chrisman’s sentence “unduly harsh” and refer it to the governor.

It’s rare for police officers to face charges for on-duty actions, let alone be convicted of murder or manslaughter, according to research on police shootings and their aftermath.

The Maricopa County Attorney’s Office, which prosecuted Chrisman, opposed the commutation, noting in a letter that Rodriguez’s mother, Elvira Fernandez, also opposed it.

“Chrisman’s killing of Rodriguez is made more egregious because he was an on-duty police officer when he shot a citizen he was sworn to protect,” Deputy County Attorney Juan Martinez wrote.

At the hearing, Martinez said Chrisman was basically portrayed as a saint by his family and supporters, but his actions as an officer, particularly on the call to Rodriguez’s house, spoke otherwise.

Fernandez, Rodriguez’s mother, told the board it should not commute Chrisman’s sentence. She also alleged the officer made racist comments while responding to her call about her son.

Through tears, she described the night her son was killed and the years since his death. The police are supposed to protect people, not kill them, she said.

“This was a senseless killing of my boy and his dog, Junior,” Fernandez said.

Dozens of Chrisman’s family members, friends and police officers wrote letters and testified at the board’s hearing, talking about his morality and integrity, saying his sentence should be commuted to time served.

The Phoenix Law Enforcement Association, the officers’ union, supported the commutation. Chrisman has “more than paid any debt owed to society” and his absence in his home has negatively affected his family, PLEA President Ken Crane wrote.

Chrisman himself told the board he plans to reconnect with his family upon his release from prison, whenever that may be. He also intended to find work and plans to go back to school, he told the board.

“I look forward to turning the page on this dark and difficult time in my life,” he said. “I will move forward, I will move upward, and I will not be defined by a single moment in my life.”

Chrisman’s conviction stems from a 2010 domestic violence call gone horribly awry, resulting in the killing of 29-year-old Rodriguez. Rodriguez’s mother, Fernandez, called police because she believed her son was violent and potentially damaging her property. She asked the police to go into her trailer to remove her son and see if any damage had been done, the Clemency Board’s letter says.

Rodriguez wouldn’t come out or allow officers to enter the trailer. Rodriguez questioned the officers’ rights to be in his home without a warrant, using an expletive. Chrisman drew his gun, placed the muzzle against Rodriguez’s head and said, “I don’t need no warrant, m*****f*****.”

Chrisman was found guilty of aggravated assault for putting the gun against Rodriguez’s head.

While Rodriguez wouldn’t leave the trailer, Chrisman worried he would be attacked by a pit bull on the premises, the Clemency Board said. Chrisman pepper-sprayed Rodriguez at one point, which didn’t seem to faze Rodriguez, who appeared to be on meth, the board said.

Chrisman next used a taser, but instead of falling, Rodriguez moved toward Chrisman. Chrisman’s partner, Officer Sergio Virgillo, then tased Rodriguez again, and he fell on a sofa. While Chrisman was putting Rodriguez in handcuffs, Chrisman perceived the dog as a threat and shot it. Rodriguez then lunged at Chrisman, and Chrisman ended up backed into a tight space, he claimed.

News reports at the time showed Virgillo contradicting Chrisman’s version of events. Virgillo said Rodriguez was going to leave the trailer on his bicycle, but Chrisman didn’t let him. Virgillo also said Rodriguez was not a threat when he was shot and killed. Prosecutors said Rodriguez’s hands were up when he was shot.

But Chrisman testified he was afraid of Rodriguez, worried he would use the bike to attack him. Chrisman shot Rodriguez twice, killing him.

A jury failed to reach a verdict on charges of second-degree murder and animal cruelty, but Chrisman accepted a plea deal of manslaughter for the killing.

Because Chrisman was a police officer, he is serving his sentence as an “undisclosed out-of-state institution,” according to the Clemency Board’s letter to Ducey. He has had limited chances at programs while in prison, the board noted, but he has achieved high school equivalency.

His family visits him, though it’s a several-hour drive each way, and he can only see them through a glass barrier, the board said. Starting in January, the institution he is in will only allow visits through a video camera system, the board said.

At his clemency hearing, Chrisman’s supporters talked about his “tortured frame of mind” after the shooting, with his mother saying the shooting “took the light out of her son’s eyes,” the board wrote. His supporters said Chrisman wasn’t bitter and wanted to move forward, adding that he planned to get a college degree after he leaves prison, the board wrote.

The board said it recognized the “serious nature” of the crime and that the “victim unfortunately died as a result of Mr. Chrisman’s actions.”

“His resulting termination and the controversial press coverage have aroused public sentiment in this matter, both pro and con,” the board wrote.

But Chrisman was acting in his capacity as a police officer and followed protocol on progressive use of force, the board concluded.

Three of the five board members — C.T. Wright, Louis Quinonez and Gail Rittenhouse — voted on the Chrisman case, and all voted to recommend the governor commute Chrisman’s sentence to time served, with community supervision to remain intact as mandated by the courts.