Clemency Board urges reduced sentence for cop in 2010 killing

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.

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.”


Health director: Alternative pain relief could help curb opioid abuse, deaths

Rx pills

Faced with an average of two deaths a day, the state’s top health official is looking for ways to curb the abuse of opioids, both legal and otherwise.

And some of that may involve getting doctors to find alternative relief for patients with chronic pain — including possibly recommending the use of medical marijuana.

Dr. Cara Christ, director of the Department of Health Services, said Thursday some of the meteoric rise in deaths — up from 454 in 2012 to 790 last year — can be traced to illegal drug use, people looking for a “high.” That is reflected in a tripling in the number of Arizonans who die from heroin overdose.

But there are more actual deaths from prescription opioids. While Christ said some of these can be people misusing the drugs for recreational purposes, she suspects there are people who have become hooked on them because of chronic pain.

One indication of that, she said, is the pure data.

Dr. Cara Christ, director of the Arizona Department of Health Services (Photo by Gary Grado, Arizona Capitol Times)
Dr. Cara Christ, director of the Arizona Department of Health Services (Photo by Gary Grado, Arizona Capitol Times)

Christ said the death rate from opioid abuse and overdose is higher among those in the 45 to 54-year-old age group than it is among any other 10-year spread. This is a group, she said, which is less likely using the drug for recreation.

So who’s to blame?

“That’s difficult,” Christ said.

She said some of it starts with doctors.

“People were educated years ago that they are non-addictive, that they are great resources for pain, you don’t need to use them only for cancer or terminal pain,” Christ said. “We underestimated the addictive potential of these medications.”

And the government itself, she said, shares the blame.

Christ said the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services links hospital reimbursement and hospital performance scores to patient satisfaction surveys. And those surveys include two questions about how their pain was treated.

“I think that assisted in this,” she said.

“Then when you clamp down on the supply of it, you have these people who have no other choice and choose, then, heroin,” Christ continued. “And we do know that four out of five heroin drug users started as prescription drug users.”

Changing that, she said, starts with doctors finding alternatives to pain management.

“There are a lot of other effective treatments, such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs,” she said, ranging from aspirin to ibuprofen — drugs like Advil and Motrin — and naproxen, which is marketed as Aleve and similar drugs. And Christ said her agency is going to set up a “chronic pain program” to work with insurance companies to ensure that they are providing coverage for such medications.

That program, she said, also is designed to provide help to patients to manage their chronic pain, “just like you would with diabetes or heart disease.”

And what of medical marijuana?

The 2010 voter-approved initiative allows doctors to recommend the drug to patients with certain specified medical conditions. And one of them is chronic pain.

Christ said she can’t say whether marijuana might be suitable for some people, outweighing the potential dangers of that drug.

“Each individual is going to be different,” she said, saying patients need to discuss options with their doctors.

“The voters decided that medical marijuana was one of them for chronic pain,” Christ said. “If patients are interested, that’s something they should talk with their health care provider about.”

What the new report shows, said Christ, is the need for even more data to understand the patterns — and the causes and possible cures.

There already have been various efforts to reduce the abuse and overuse of prescription opioids.

Last year lawmakers approved creating a centralized database that doctors are supposed to check before writing certain prescriptions. The idea is to curb “doctor shopping,” with patients going from one medical office to another to get prescriptions for not just opioids but other controlled substances.

Gov. Doug Ducey also signed an executive order last October limiting the first prescription of opioids to no more than a seven-day supply in cases where the state is providing the reimbursement.

On the other end of the spectrum, Arizona pharmacists can now dispense naloxone, a counter to opioid-related overdoses, over the counter so that family members can have the drug on hand if needed.

Christ said there is also a role for law enforcement — but not in going after those addicted to or abusing the drug.

I truly believe that opioid addiction and abuse is a health concern,” she said. “It’s a disease.”

And that, Christ said, means that people who want help need to feel it’s safe to get it without risk of getting arrested.

“The law enforcement component comes in with the suppliers,” she said.

“We’ve heard it anecdotally that people who really are trying to go get help, and they’re standing in line at a methadone clinic to get the medication they need to treat their illness, and they’ve got heroin dealers coming up to them in line,” Christ said. “That’s inappropriate.”

House panel okays bill to toughen penalties for traffic accidents

Detail with damage automobile after a car crash accident

State lawmakers are moving to close what appears to be a loophole that allows some people to escape with what amounts to a legal slap on the wrist even if they kill someone while driving.

Current law makes it a Class 3 misdemeanor for causing serious injury or death while violating any of a list of traffic laws, ranging from running a stop sign to failing to yield to pedestrians in a crosswalk. That’s punishable by up to 30 days in jail.

What makes that alarming, according to Jody Kieran, is that the penalty is harsher for someone who litters.

Kieran’s views were front and center Tuesday as she detailed for members of the Senate Committee on Transportation and Technology the 2016 traffic accident in Chandler that claimed the life of her 31-year-old daughter, Pamela Hesselbacher, and seriously injured Kieran’s two grandchildren who were with their mother.

People can be charged with felonies in some cases where there is an accident causing injury or death when a driver’s license has been revoked. But Kieran told lawmakers that, in this incident, the fact that the driver was operating on a suspended license and driving without the proper insurance did not trigger those felony penalties.

“The current law does not give my daughter the justice she deserves,” Kieran said.

According to Chandler police, the driver, while on a suspended license, ran a red light, killing Hesselbacher. Her 3-year-old son suffered a broken arm, broken hips and lacerations; her year-old daughter initially was in a coma.

Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery rebuffed the family’s bid to seek a felony conviction, concluding that the facts of the situation — driving on a license that had been suspended for failing to have auto insurance — did not fit within the existing definition of the law. The motorist was not drunk and did not leave the scene of the accident.

That left only that Class 3 misdemeanor.

Nothing in this legislation would change any of that in the case of the driver who killed Hesselbacher. But Kieran said it will help prevent what she believes are similar miscarriages of justice in the future.

Sen. Bob Worsley, R-Mesa, said the facts of this situation point up “an old hole in our statutes.”

But HB 2522, which cleared the committee on a 6-1 vote, would do more than close that peculiar loophole.

First, it would double the period that a motorist loses driving privileges following an accident causing serious injury to 180 days, and a full year in cases of death.

It also provides for the loss of a license for up to a decade in some instances of accidents resulting in death.

And it removes the current $10,000 cap in state law for restitution to victims and their families.

The whole proposal bothered Sen. Juan Mendez, D-Tempe.

He said it would be one thing if the enhanced penalties applied in cases where a prosecutor had to prove that a person was reckless, as opposed to a simple accident.

“The way that I read it, it just sounds like more of a strict liability crime where we’re saying ‘something happened’ and, so, throw the book at them,” Mendez said. But Rep. Maria Syms, R-Paradise Valley, who is sponsoring the legislation, called that verbiage unnecessary.

“I consider somebody driving illegally on a suspended license and then also hitting a pedestrian in a crosswalk to be acting recklessly,” she said.

Mendez was not convinced to support the measure, and not just over the failure to include the word “reckless” in the bill.

“It sounds great in an election year,” Mendez said. “But this is a broad brush approach to crime and it’s going to have diminishing returns.”

The vote sends the measure, which already has been approved by the House on a 54-5 vote, to the full Senate.

Political fight brews on Corporation Commission


The lone Democrat on the Arizona Corporation Commission is accusing its newest member of “using her office to advance her election chances.”

In a filing at the commission, Sandra Kennedy said that Lea Marquez Peterson appears more interested in pleasing Gov. Doug Ducey, who appointed her, and Don Brandt, the chief executive of the parent company of Arizona Public Service, than in actually getting answers from APS about what led to the heat-related death of a customer last year.

The move comes as Kennedy is pushing to force Brandt and other top corporate executives to come to the commission to answer questions, under oath, about the company policies and practices, particularly as they relate to when customers are disconnected. She already has the support of Commission Chairman Bob Burns for that move.

Lea Marquez Peterson
Lea Marquez Peterson

But Peterson told Capitol Media Services she’s not sure that’s appropriate − at least not yet. She instead continues to promote an outside probe of what happened, including the actions of the commission staff.

Only then would she consider bringing in someone from APS or parent company Pinnacle West Capital Corp. And she’s not sure it has to be Brandt.

Kennedy, for her part, said Peterson is loath to take that step “because she is beholden to Mr. Brandt and Pinnacle West for campaign contributions,” a clear reference to the money donated to her ill-fated 2018 congressional campaign. And then there’s the fact that Peterson, tapped by Ducey to fill the vacancy created by the resignation of Andy Tobin, has to run in 2020 to keep her post.

“Perhaps Commissioner Marquez Peterson is worried about her own political future as a Republican without Don Brandt and Pinnacle West supporting her,” Kennedy said.

Kennedy also suggested that Peterson was acting in “seeming coordination” with the governor who appointed her, noting that Ducey last month accused the commission of “mission creep,” getting into areas beyond its clear constitutional authority to set rates.

But Peterson denied that the governor discussed his claim of “mission creep” when he interviewed and appointed her to the commission.

Peterson also dismissed Kennedy’s overall comments, made both in a formal filing at the commission and to Capitol Media Services, as a “political response” to her calls for an outside probe.

“I’m just really focused on responding to the public and the media who requested additional information and how we come up with policies to protect Arizona’s ratepayers,” she said.

Sandra Kennedy
Sandra Kennedy

And Peterson suggested that there’s also politics behind Kennedy’s attack on her. She pointed out that Kennedy is campaign manager for Bill Mundell, one of the Democrats running for the three available slots on the commission on that 2020 ballot.

But Kennedy isn’t the only one questioning whether Peterson is playing politics and is loath to push too hard against APS.

“She was working with the state Chamber which has very strong ties to APS,” said Burns of Peterson, including backing the company’s successful effort to quash an initiative to force all utilities to generate more power from renewable sources. “The position she was in before she came to the commission would indicate that she has a connection with those folks.”

Now, said Burns, Peterson has a new position.

“And where you sit depends on where you stand,” he said. “So we need to know where she stands.”

Questions remain as to whether Brandt actually will be subpoenaed. And some of them are legal.

Last year Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Daniel Kiley concluded that Burns, as a member of the commission, has an individual right to issue a subpoena for the books of not only APS but also Pinnacle West. More to the point, the judge said that individual right of commissioners extends to the ability to subpoena corporate executives to testify.

But Kiley said none of that matters because, at least at that time and on that issue, the other four members of the commission refused to enforce the subpoenas. And the judge said he lacks the legal authority to overrule that.

That leaves the question of whether there is now a working majority to force Brandt to testify.

“I would support full disclosure as to the facts of the situation,” said Commissioner Boyd Dunn. But he said that doesn’t necessarily have to come from Brandt. And Dunn, a former judge, said a more logical first step might be for commissioners to subpoena any documents they want, review those, and only then call in corporate executives to question them.

That’s also the position of Justin Olson, the remaining commission member.

“It’s incumbent on the commission to do everything within our power to ensure that we have proper oversight of our utilities,” he said.

“That includes gaining all of the information that’s necessary to provide that oversight,” Olson said. “If we’re not getting the information that we need to provide that proper oversight and a subpoena is needed, then that’s the action the commission should take in order to get that information.”

Peterson, on the job now for only about a month, said she hasn’t researched the issue of subpoenas. But she’s not ready to go there — at least not now.

“I think the first reasonable step is further investigation,” Peterson said. “And if the commission as a whole decides to move forward, that’s something we can discuss at that point.”

But is she interested in hearing from Brandt?

“I’m interested in hearing from APS in terms of different questions that have been addressed to them,” Peterson said, saying responses could come from “the APS team.”