FREE TO KILL: Pima County justice system releasing felons with violent pasts

Pima County is under scrutiny over how it is handling criminal justice reform
The Pima County justice system has been accused of releasing felons with violent pasts.
Published: Apr. 18, 2022 at 10:26 PM MST|Updated: Apr. 28, 2022 at 10:55 AM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - It’s an alarming cycle of deadly violence. Pima County is now under scrutiny over how it is handling criminal justice reform.

Law enforcement leaders recently told county supervisors that parts of the system are broken.

And now that board is deciding whether the county should continue on the same path for another 10 years.

KOLD has been looking at a handful of murder cases for weeks now examining a breakdown in the criminal justice system.

At its last board meeting supervisors tackled the topic.

Law enforcement leaders told the board the current system need to be fixed because decisions as to who stays in jail and who doesn’t are not consistent.

Some leaders played the blame game and what they revealed is alarming.

And so is what we found in court records on a handful of killings and it’s raising serious questions as to why suspects were let out of jail.

A killer with a violent criminal past released by the court twice early last year.

Brandon Michael Watts, many would argue, should have been sitting in jail awaiting trial.

But several months later police say he shot his girlfriend to death barricaded himself in a hotel with hostages including children and later killed himself after an hours-long standoff.

His case generated outrage in the community with many asking how could a dangerous criminal be out on the streets?

Watts had two arrests in 2021 alone: January and March.

A domestic violence assault charge as well as aggravated assault with a dangerous instrument.

Watts had been out of jail on pretrial release at the time of the rampage.

“We’re at the point in society where they need to recognize if we all think that just an arrest is going to change somebody’s behavior, then you’re wrong,” Tucson Police Chief Chad Kasmar said.

Pretrial Release is like a get out of jail card, but with conditions.

Every person arrested goes through Pretrial Services.

It’s the initial step in court proceeding to determine whether a suspect stays in jail or is released with conditions.

Watts had a long criminal past.

The Pima County Attorney’s Office considered him a risk to re-offend and recommended a $35,000 bond.

The court records show Watts had a history of violent behavior, a continual risk to the victim, prior felony convictions, including manslaughter in another state, a substantial misdemeanor record and a history of failing to appear for court hearings.

Yet he was released on low bond.

“Pretrial services is broken. They have a computer system, they punch something in, it gives a recommendation, and it says released to pretrial services,” said former chief Criminal Deputy David Berkman.

And city magistrates, he said, can rely on those pre-trial reports.

“Which is fairly worthless and then go, well, it’s not our problem,” said Berkman.

But it’s a problem for Tucson Police when dangerous criminals on pretrial release are back on the streets, free to kill.

“We are having multiple, multiple contacts with violent offenders, with drug dealers who are prohibitive possessors, and have been arrested four to six times with over 17 felony charges that are spending less than 24 hours in jail,” Kasmar explained.

Violent offenders that include Zachary Naifeh, Justin Nichols, Rico Roman, and Robert Rosas.

They were all ordered not to possess weapons, charged with murder in the past two years while out of jail on pretrial release at the time of the killings.

Frustrating outcomes for Kasmar, who says his detectives are sometimes not consulted with before decisions for release are made.

“I’ll speak for the other chiefs and the sheriff with that as well, that we’re all looking for consistent decision making and transparency and accountability,” he said, “We should also expect that from pretrial release or any judiciary decision-making that’s happening.”

The man in charge of Pretrial Services is Domingo Corona.

KOLD sat down with him to discuss why these dangerous criminals had been released, but he told us he couldn’t talk about specific cases publicly, only the pretrial system, which he defends.

“We’re only one of four components of the assessment process. We provide information to the court, again, relevant to statute and to criminal history and risk assessment. And then the prosecutor will submit a recommendation. Defense counsel will submit a recommendation and law enforcement will provide cases details to the judge,” Corona said.

But are there areas of the system that need to be fixed or reviewed?

“I think we do a really good job here, but you know having said that, you know, I think it’s always best to look at cases, you know, in review to see that happened in that cases and if there was anything that could have been done differently,” Corona said.

And sometimes his office does have those conversations, Corona said. And it isn’t a conversation where anyone should be defensive, Kasmar added.

Kasmar believes the entire Pima County judicial system should be scrutinized.

“We have to take a step back and take a look at the system and look to see what kind of change we can collaboratively make that give us different outcomes. And I think the community should expect those conversations are ongoing. I think they should demand it,” said Kasmar.

KOLD will continue to investigate how the county is handling criminal justice reform.

The board is scheduled to vote Tuesday, April 19th, on whether to renew it’s 10-year intergovernmental agreement that directly impacts the pretrial system.

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