One-on-one with Pima County District Attorney Laura Conover

KOLD News 6-6:30 p.m. recurring
Published: Jan. 27, 2022 at 10:52 PM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - Pima County District Attorney Laura Conover took office in the midst of the pandemic and in a record-breaking year of homicides in Tucson.

“We have been under emergency operations since day one,” Conover said.

According to the Tucson Police Department, there were 93 homicides in 2021. Compare that to 68 in 2020 and 50 in 2019.

Conover said their homicide panel used to meet monthly, but due to the increase in homicides, they now meet weekly.

“The mornings are spent reviewing the case reports. The afternoons are the presentations to see what can we resolve and what needs to go to trial,” Conover said.

To add to the challenge, when Conover took office, she walked into a backlog of cases only made worse by the pandemic.

“I came in with a backlog of 144 pending homicides going back to 2017,” Conover said.

Conover said despite clearing nearly 90 of those cases in 2021, her office continues to battle a backlog.

During her first year in office, Conover also did away with the death penalty.

“It was an intense process,” Conover said.

Conover said she met with the family members of those impacted by the decision.

“The grace of those families cannot be overstated. That decision happened to them; it happened to their case,” Conover said.

With the disbanding of the Capital Case Homicide Panel, Conover said administrative relief is palpable and gives cases finality.

Those are not the only difficult conversations Conover has had with families.

In March 2021, her office dropped an aggravated assault charge related to a road rage shooting incident that killed Rudy Vega, 27.

“Laura Conover, by making the wrong decision, it’s like Rudy got murdered all over again,” said Monique Coronado-Isalva, Vega’s aunt.

Coronado and her family called for Conover’s resignation.

“Laura Conover, she shouldn’t be Pima County Attorney,” Coronado-Islava said.

Conover said her office dropped the charge because the incident fell under Arizona’s self-defense laws.

Conover said her office does not make legal decisions based on a family’s grief, no matter how badly they feel their loss.

“Some of the most difficult conversations we have had this year for sure is when we had to decline to prosecute a case,” Conover said. “It has to do with the high burden of the evidence necessary to convict someone of a crime. When a family has lost someone, when someone harmed and we don’t have the evidence necessary to make a case, those are really, really hard conversations.”

Conover said she has a policy in place that if anyone loses a loved one in this community and wants to speak with her, she will make that conversation happen.

Looking forward to 2022, Conover said she is actively working on legislation with state lawmakers and the NAACP to reform cash bail.

“It fails us on both ends of the spectrum. If someone is charged with a violent crime, but they can pay a high bond, they simply walk right back out into the community. Those who simply can’t afford low cash bond on non violent offenses are trapped and the costs to the community are wide,” Conover said.

Her office has hosted training sessions to make sure prosecutors are not asking for low cash bond and are only requesting people be held if they are a threat to the community.

“There’s a myriad of tools in our toolbox to make sure a person comes back to court and that way the jail is reserved for those who have to be separated from society due to an ongoing threat to harm,” Conover said.

KOLD News 10-10:30 p.m. recurring

That is not the only legislation Conover hopes to see passed.

In November 2020, voters approved Proposition 2017, which legalized recreational marijuana in Arizona.

“The initiative that was passed, didn’t make expungement automatic,” Conover said. “I certainly proposed the California method where I would simply just mine through the data for all the people who qualify for expungement, file one motion and as an exhibit, put thousands of names, which you can do now in California. The court was not willing to entertain that concept, so we file them one by one by one.”

Conover’s office said it has successfully filed roughly 100 petitions so far.

One of Conover’s priorities in 2022 is to make expungement automatic and expand expungement opportunities beyond marijuana possession.

Conover’s office is also currently declining to charge people arrested for simple drug possession, paraphernalia, or related personal-use incidents.

It is a policy put in place to help reduce the Pima County Jail population to slow the spread of COVID.

“It’s not a hospital. We go in there and we look at people who are jailed for substance use disorder, and we say to ourselves, ‘Why are these people even in there at all to begin with?’

Conover said they have partnered together to safely move those people out of jail and into treatment.

Her office has directed law enforcement agencies to deflect people who would have been arrested for those offenses toward drug treatment instead. It is a policy that will be reviewed in February 2022.

“We want people to succeed. We want people to do well. We want them to be motivated to be productive members of the community and that should be rewarded so they can be employed or employed better,” Conover said.

The Pima County Attorney Office’s Diversion Program reported it kept more than 200 people of jail in 2021 and diverted dozens of people toward treatment instead of incarceration and/or community supervision.

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