Danny Adelman: Learning the law in the public’s interest

Danny Adelman (Photo  by Paulina Pineda/Arizona Capitol Times)
Danny Adelman (Photo by Paulina Pineda/Arizona Capitol Times)

Before graduating from the University of Arizona with a bachelor’s degree in accounting, Daniel “Danny” Adelman knew he wanted to study law. Accounting was something he “fell into,” but studying law was something he was passionate about. Adelman, founding partner of Adelman German law firm, was recently named executive director of the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest. He will replace outgoing director Tim Hogan, who has led the center for 26 years, in early 2018.

The center has long played a role in Arizona politics, tackling issues pertaining to public education, child welfare and the environment. How does it feel to take over such a big-name nonprofit law firm?

It’s clearly an awesome responsibility. I understand a lot about how much the center has accomplished over the years and it’s really mind blowing how much such a small organization has been able to accomplish. The work that the center has done for children, for public education, for the environment is truly amazing, so I’m humbled by it, but I’m up for the challenge.

You’ve served on the center’s board for 23 years. When did you first become involved with the center and why?

I actually learned about the center when I was in law school at ASU like 32 years ago. … When I got out (of school), I was already involved in some charities that helped children and part of what we did was we would go to different schools to try to get children for this camp for underprivileged kids that I helped run. The schools were just atrocious, the disparity between the haves and the have nots. That was while the center was prosecuting the lawsuit that had the Arizona school finance system declared unconstitutional. And after the center won that lawsuit I would go back to those same schools and it made a huge difference. They were able to rebuild and refurbish and make the schools really good. … (The center has) always been a big part of what I’ve cared about in Arizona.

In your private practice you focus on personal injury and medical malpractice cases. How will that experience translate to your new position?

You’re always going up against huge corporations or insurance companies that have unlimited resources. Well, that is definitely a thing that I’ll be doing in all the litigation that the center does. I do a lot of work involving medical malpractice. I’m not a doctor, but in each case I have to learn a whole new area of medicine and sort of become an expert on this one little issue. Well I’m going to have a lot of learning to do as the executive director for the center. And I think those skills of finding the right expert and really learning a whole new area will serve me well.

The center has focused on public education, the environment and health care. Do you see yourself continuing to pursue those themes? What other areas are you interested in tackling?

Continuing those topics is definitely a big part of where I see the center going in the future. So I do not have a goal to totally change the direction of the center. … Recently the center took on a case for families with children with autism where insurance companies, either public or private, are denying services to children with autism. If you looked five years ago, that wasn’t a case that we were already doing, but it was a good area to expand into. So I want to look for areas like that that we can expand our mission to as long as the idea of the mission, advocating for people who otherwise would have no voice, stays consistent.

Going forward, what are some of your goals for the center?

One of my goals for the center is to reach out to more people so that they can kind of see what the center is and support us. We don’t take any government money so we just have small individual donations from people who care about children and health care and we’re constantly going to battle with people and institutions with a ton of power, so it really is a true grassroots kind of organization. … I want to help get an educational system that isn’t so unequal. People can argue about whether they have privilege or whether other people should overcome odds, but in Arizona our Constitution says that the government needs to provide this and it’s not fair that kids in an affluent district have so many advantages, just as to the structure of their school, that children in poor districts don’t have. I want to fight that.

You play in a band called The Philosophisers.

I play the guitar, rhythm guitar, in a rock and blues band, which actually sounds way more exciting than it really is. I also play the harmonica in the blues part of it. I started playing the guitar right out of high school and was a song leader at a camp. And then a group of friends just decided to put together a band. … It’s a lot of fun and it’s good to keep the other half of the brain engaged.

You also wrote a fiction novel about two NASA scientists who develop technology that can solve world hunger. How did the idea come about?

I started writing the book as a whim. My son, who was a journalism major, and I decided we’d write a book. And I wrote the first chapter and then he was going to write the second chapter but he was too busy being in school and having fun so then I wrote the second chapter and just kept going. … So it was just for fun. I self-published it on Amazon. I have my idea for my next book. The star character will be a preschool teacher. And of course it will be a murder mystery.

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 reaches milestone in picks to the bench

Judges office

Gov. Doug Ducey has set the record for the most court picks in Arizona history after appointing four people to the bench on April 24. 

He started the day by appointing Judge Cynthia Bailey, a Republican, to the vacancy on the Court of Appeals — Division One, which put him tied with former Gov. Bruce Babbitt at 68. Bailey was promoted from the Maricopa County Superior Court, opening up another vacancy Ducey will have to fill. 

A few hours later, Ducey appointed Marvin Davis, Suzanne Nicholls and Michael Rassas to the Maricopa County Superior Court, finally cementing his spot in the state record books. 

The governor’s total appointments is now at 71 with still two plus years to go in his final term. He made 56 total appointments in his first term and has made 15 picks since, with likely more to come as judges either face mandatory retirement once reaching 70 years old, or death or resignations. Plus Coconino County just recently established its inaugural trial court commission (LINK) meaning the governor will now be able to appoint judges to not only the Supreme Court and two Courts of Appeals, but four county courts as well. 

Bailey’s name may be recognizable because she is married to Michael Bailey, Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich’s former chief of staff who President Donald Trump nominated as U.S. Attorney for Arizona where he received unanimous Senate approval last year. 

Bailey beat out a large group of applicants for this position replacing the retiring Judge Diane Johnsen, a Democrat. 

With his appointments of Davis, Nicholls and Rassas, Ducey was able to add to his record-breaking total of appointing women to the courts and now places third for minority appointments. Davis is African American and Rassas is Hispanic.

Davis is also a Democrat, the only one of the four whom the governor picked today. The other three are Republicans.

Ducey also has appointed the most people from different political parties than his own — 17 Democrats and 12 others, compared to 42 Republicans.

Lindsay Herf: Finding holes in America’s justice system

Cap Times Q&A

Lindsay Herf’s mission in life is to find the holes in our justice system.

As executive director of the Arizona Justice Project, she leads efforts to investigate claims of innocence.

Herf worked on a FBI’s review of microscopic hair analysis for two years in Washington, D.C. following the bureau’s discovery of widespread misrepresentation of microscopic hair analysis, and now leads a team responsible for digging through court records on hundreds of Arizona cases that need legal consideration.

It’s hardly where she expected to end up after finishing law school, but now that she’s here, she’s living that “#wrongfulconviction warrior” life day in and day out.

Lindsay Herf (Photo by Jenna Miller/Arizona Capitol Times)
Lindsay Herf (Photo by Jenna Miller/Arizona Capitol Times)

How’d you get into this side of the law?

This side being kind of on the defense and on the tail end looking back. In law school, I never thought I’d go into criminal law. This was never my dream. But I went to Cal Western in San Diego, and that’s the home of the California Innocence Project. In my second year of law school, I was a student clinician at CIP, and for the first time learned about what can and does go wrong in the system, how innocent people have been snared up and been wrongfully convicted. I mean I grew up here in Paradise Valley within a pretty conservative family – never even dawned on me that something like this could happen. People lie about things for a variety of reasons – witnesses lie, snitches lie, sometimes people operating the system, prosecutors and defense lawyers lie. And then when I graduated from law school, there was the position here that opened up because of the grant. I never thought I’d come back to Arizona, but I came back.

Do you know anyone personally who’s been wrongfully convicted?

There are people definitely that I know from growing up that have had run-ins with the system that have gone into jail or even prison that I know are good people and made a mistake. The exonerees give me and our entire staff the motivation to come to work every day. None of them signed up for this. None of them, for the most part, really did anything wrong to get themselves in the position to be accused and then, ultimately, convicted. It’s amazing to me and I think to a lot of people who meet them that many of them, by the time they’re finally released, they’re not mad. And you think, “Wouldn’t you just be so mad for losing 15, 20 years of your life?” And I think everyone probably goes through that emotion and that anger. But how long can you stay angry before it just starts eating you up inside?

Attorney General Jeff Sessions ended the Department of Justice’s National Commission on Forensic Science, something you pointed out on Twitter but which seemed to be largely overlooked.

The National Commission on Forensic Science was formed with people from all different areas – everything from science practitioners to academics to prosecutors to judges to defense lawyers, people from all throughout the criminal justice community – to kind of examine where our flaws are with forensic sciences and what we can do to strengthen that field. But when Sessions became our attorney general, he ended the commission. It was something that would have been renewable no matter who came into office, but when he did, he decided not to renew it.

I think that it is ignoring the fact that we do have some problems with forensics and the law. And nationwide, every lab is different. Some states, some jurisdictions, have more funding (and) have better quality labs than others. What’s passing as forensic science in some areas isn’t science at all. You can read a report and see what the analyst says, but when they’re on the stand and testifying to something, that’s when the exaggerations sometimes come out. (It’s) not necessarily to intentionally cause harm, but sometimes it’s hard to put things in different words. When you’ve got a rape case in Podunk, Tennessee, and they bring this person in from the FBI and Washington D.C., whatever that person’s conclusion is, that’s going to paint the picture.

Why do you think he ended it?

I don’t know if he doesn’t fully understand what some of the problems are with forensic science and the court and how different flawed forensics have led to wrongful convictions. I don’t know how knowledgeable he is about that. I don’t know if he just doesn’t want to put the resources into digging into this anymore. Having my career in post- conviction legal work, and every week it seems like I’m reading about a new person who’s been exonerated somewhere around the country, we know mistakes happen. In any system that’s operated by humans, there’s going to be an error. There’s going to be mistakes. It’s not always intentional, but I think we need to recognize that it happens, especially with the advancements of technology and science. We can correct wrongs that we didn’t even know about in the past, and I think he seems resistant to that.

How are things different for attorneys in these turbulent times?

A lot of racism, sexism – it’s invisible until you start seeing how votes come out. People start acting on things. A disproportionate number of people who have been wrongfully convicted are minorities across the nation, maybe not specifically in Arizona. Some of our nation’s – what we thought might’ve been history, in terms of equality or whatnot – I don’t think is much history. I think there’s still issues that everyone’s grappling with today.

You’re a marathoner in your personal time?

I’ve done one, so I don’t know if that counts me as a marathoner. I grew up swimming and running primarily. I ran in college and then I swim more now just because my body can’t take running every day. But I’m on the Phoenix Swim Club team with half the legal community it seems like.

The Breakdown: Have you no honor?


How exactly do you work with someone you believe has betrayed you?

That’s a question some lawmakers are asking themselves about the state’s county prosecutors after what some saw as an 11th hour reversal on criminal justice reform measures.

An attorney plagiarized a significant portion of her application to the Court of Appeals, then changed it after our reporter called shenanigans.

And session may be over, but your state lawmakers are still making waves.

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Music in this episode included “Creative Minds” and “Energy” by Bensound.