Arizona Supreme Court returns convicted murderer to death row


The Arizona Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty today for convicted murderer Darrel Pandeli after finding a Maricopa County Superior Court judge overstepped his bounds when reviewing the case. 

According to the court’s unanimous ruling, Judge Robert Gottsfield repeatedly second-guessed defense counsel’s strategy when he should have offered deference. The high court found Gottsfield “did not explain how Pandeli suffered prejudice from any of the acts or omissions” he believed to be an ineffective defense.

“Simply disagreeing with strategy decisions cannot support determination that representation was inadequate,” Justice Clint Bolick wrote in the court’s opinion.

Darrel Pandeli

Pandeli was sentenced to death by a judge in 1998 for the murder of Holly Iler.

The state appealed Gottsfield’s 2015 decision to throw out the death penalty.

The state Supreme Court categorically disagreed with Gottsfield finding that 15 claims of ineffective assistance of counsel and a due process violation were grounds enough for throwing out the death sentence.

The justices noted many of Gottsfield’s findings centered around the fact that Pandeli’s trial counsel, Gary Shriver and his co-counsel Dawn Sinclair, made a “spur-of-the-moment decision” not to cross-examine the state’s key witness, psychologist Dr. Brad Bayless. Gottsfield determined Bayless “frequently doesn’t have any scientific basis for his opinion” that Pandeli was psychotic and “that there’s no saving him.”

Robert Gottsfield

Shriver and Sinclair testified to that decision’s “wrongheadedness,” which constituted ineffective assistance in Gottsfield’s view, but the hight court today determined their decision was informed by more than a lack of preparation.

Shriver testified that he knew Bayless to be adversarial and “hard to control” on the stand. Ultimately, Shriver decided simply cross-examining Bayless “doesn’t mean that you are going to successfully examine him…”

The Supreme Court determined “no finding was made that the decision lacked ‘some reasoned basis.’”

Pandeli had also asserted ineffective assistance of counsel claims based on various alleged failures to lodge objections, including references to serial killers and presentation of his violent sexual fantasies; the alleged failure to effectively cross-examine the defendant’s brother Chris Pandeli, who was believed to have “some sort of damaging information” that may come out during lengthy questioning; and Sinclair’s in-experience as a trial attorney, which the state Supreme Court found to be irrelevant given Shriver’s extensive experience.

Likewise, the court’s opinion went on, Gottsfield was wrong to uphold Pandeli’s due process claim because he “implied the jury must be given only objectively accurate expert testimony.” Gottsfield determined “it is clear” that Pandeli suffered from a “serious mental illness” even though Bayless testified he had exaggerated during cognitive tests and simply had an antisocial personality disorder.

“The [post-conviction relief] court did not find that Dr. Bayless relied on any inaccurate facts to arrive at his opinions; the court simply disagreed with those opinions,” Bolick wrote. “However, a defendant’s due process rights are not violated by a good-faith ‘battle of the experts.’”

Iler was the granddaughter of Donald W. Douglas, Sr., whose company Douglas Aircraft went on to become McDonnell Douglas. She turned to prostitution to support a drug habit, according to The Arizona Republic, and Pandeli hired her for sex. The arrangement turned violent when Pandeli was unable to perform.

Iler’s beaten body was found naked in a Phoenix alley, her throat slashed and breasts mutilated.

Pandeli was also convicted for the 1992 murder and mutilation of another prostitute, Teresa Humphreys. For that, he was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Death row thinning in Arizona, nationally – reasons vary

The death row population in Arizona has largely been on the decline since 2010, following a nationwide trend observed over the past 15 years. Meanwhile, experts are at odds about the forces at play.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ most recent data – accounting for prisoners under sentence of death as of December 31, 2015 – Arizona did see its first uptick in death row inmates in five years with the addition of two inmates in 2015. But that runs counter to the slow yet steady decline of the state’s death row.

Ron Reinstein
Ron Reinstein

Ron Reinstein, a retired Maricopa County Superior Court judge who now chairs the state’s Capital Case Oversight Committee, attributed the trend to ongoing challenges in obtaining the drugs states like Arizona need to perform lethal injections, the high costs of capital cases and, particularly, stronger defense performances.

Those factors resonate with an analysis of the data done by the Death Penalty Information Center.

Death rows are shrinking faster than new death sentences are imposed, the information center concluded. The data shows 28 inmates nationwide were executed in 2015 compared to 82 removed by other means – 49 new inmates were admitted that year. That means exonerations, reversals of death sentences or convictions and death by other causes – including natural death while in wait – have occurred at a higher rate than the executions sought by prosecutors.

Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery (Cronkite News Service Photo by Christina Silvestri)
Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery (Cronkite News Service Photo by Christina Silvestri)

Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery had other thoughts on what might explain the trend.

He said fewer death sentences have coincided with a decline in the sort of crimes that might lead prosecutors to seek the death penalty. With fewer murders committed – 2015 saw the lowest homicide rate since 1960, he said – a decline in death penalty cases is expected.

Reinstein questioned that suggestion.

“As far as Arizona goes, there’s Maricopa and then there’s the rest of the state,” he said.

He said Montgomery’s office “seems to be filing the same type of cases they always had, and that number – somewhere between 65 and 70 – has pretty much held true ever since the drop off” following former County Attorney Andrew Thomas’ administration, under which death penalty cases exceeded 140.

“If what Bill’s saying is true, then I think you’d see that number go down more… We haven’t seen any kind of reduction in that 65 to 70 range.”

And since roughly September 2015, according to Reinstein, only one of the nine capital cases that went to trial in Maricopa County ended with a death sentence.

That could simply be a result of the types of cases presented to jurors, he said, and could easily change if the county saw a spurt of murders involving torture or contract killings.

Prosecutors in Yuma County, for example, successfully argued for the death penalty in a case involving six victims. Reinstein said that was the first death sentence imposed outside of Maricopa or Pima counties in nearly a decade.

And that, in Reinstein’s view, seems to reflect the difficulty of convincing 12 jurors to unanimously find death is warranted.

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, most Americans prefer life without parole, an option in Arizona, to the death penalty. Public opinion may act as a deterrent to the costly battle over a death sentence or even public office.

Montgomery disagreed with that assertion.

In terms of public opinion–which still polled favorably in 2015 – he said that does not figure into whether his office seeks a death sentence.

“It’s not like we’ve got this huge data set of jury verdicts that would allow us to extrapolate a general or any kind of specific sense among the electorate,” he said.

And as for his own personal politics: “I’ve never made the death penalty a key component of any campaign or re-election as the county attorney, nor have I seen – I can’t recollect any county attorney in Arizona making that a significant issue,” he said. “I think that’s low-hanging fruit for some people to try to justify why the number of capital cases goes up or down.”


Ducey says state law, not pope, dictates his action on death penalty


Gov. Doug Ducey said he will obey Arizona law and not Pope Francis, who has now declared that the death penalty is unacceptable in all cases.

But the governor noted that, at least for the moment, he doesn’t have to make that choice.

The issue arises because the pope, in the strongest statement ever, said earlier this month that executions are “an attack” on human dignity. Francis also promised to work “with determination” to abolish capital punishment wherever it still exists.

“I, of course, am going to listen to what the pope says,” Ducey said on Monday when asked about it. The governor is a practicing Catholic.

“At the same time, I took an oath to uphold the law in Arizona. And I’m going to continue to uphold the law,” he added.

Anyway, Ducey said, it’s not like this is something new.

“This has been the catechism for some time of the church,” he said, referring to the beliefs laid on in writing of the Catholic faithful. He said Francis was only “adding a qualifying comment.”

But that has not exactly been the case.

In his 1995 Evangelium vitae — the Gospel of Life — Pope John Paul II said that execution is only appropriate in cases of absolute necessity, “in other words when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society” through non-lethal means. That language provided enough of an escape clause of sorts for Catholic officials like the governor who must sign death warrants.

What Francis said earlier this month effectively closes any loophole, at least as far as Catholic doctrine.

The governor sidestepped questions of whether he is saying that state statutes, and his oath to obey them, are superior to God’s law, at least as interpreted by the pope.

“We can have an interesting discussion about that and about life,” Ducey responded. He pointed out that, at least for the time being, he doesn’t have to make that choice.

“Thankfully, there’s nothing on the docket in front of me at the time,” he said.

The last execution in Arizona was in 2014, under Gov. Jan Brewer. Since that time, a series of legal actions about the penalty and the drugs used to execute inmates have resulted in a virtual moratorium on executions.

There are currently 117 inmates on “death row,” including three women.