Free to Kill: Victim Risk Assessment is often ignored by judges

KOLD News 10-10:30 p.m. recurring
Published: Oct. 3, 2022 at 10:34 PM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - It’s a chilling discovery in the case of a Tucson family shot to death in their home last year.

We’ve learned the murdered mother had told police her husband was capable of killing her and had tried before.

That man, John James, is sitting in the Pima County jail accused of the crime.

We reviewed this case with Sheriff Chris Nanos and others to get some insight into domestic disputes that end in murder.

Court records reveal John James is a violent felon with an extensive criminal history, including domestic violence and he’s not allowed to possess guns.

Yet in 2019, he was arrested after a violent domestic dispute with his wife, Willona White, and then released from jail on a low bond.

Leaders, including Nanos, argue James should have stayed in jail, especially after what his wife told police.

It’s a voice beyond the grave in the form of a questionnaire.

Willona White responded to a risk assessment that law enforcement uses in domestic violence disputes.

It reveals a high risk of danger for her, but in this case, it didn’t seem to matter much.

The judge issued a very low bond and James was released the next day.

Sheriff Chris Nanos responded, “Why do we do this (risk assessment)? What was the purpose? That’s ridiculous.”

The risk assessment reveals she feared for her life the day of the attack.

She answered yes to half of the 18 questions.

Has physical violence increased in frequency or severity? Yes.

Do you believe he’s capable of killing you? Yes.

Has he ever used a weapon to hurt or threaten you? Yes.

Has he ever tried to kill you? Yes.

Answering yes to 4 or more of these top tier questions is considered high risk.

She answered yes to five.

And in Tier 2, White answered she ended the relationship within the past 6 months, James had no job, and he threatened to kill her -- pushing the level of “high risk” even higher.

“I think judges have a tendency to not look at the appraise form for what it is worth.” said Detective Michael Buglewicz, who is a domestic violence detective in the Pima County Sheriff’s Department.

“We do the appraise form right at the incident. That’s when the victims are feeling the worst. That’s when they’ve been abused, that’s when they’d been hurting. And then we submit it to the judge,” he said.

But the risk assessment isn’t the only thing the judge received.

The Pima County Attorney’s Office recommended a $75,000 bond citing a risk to reoffend, a risk to the community, a significant criminal history and a flight risk.

Pretrial services noted he was on probation at the time.

Yet James receives a low bond of $5,000.

Nanos said, “If I’m the judge and I hear the county attorney, I hear pre-trial services I hear the police officer. I even hear the victim say bad guy. Needs to be locked up a long time. Why would you -- for the life of me I don’t understand these judges.”

We discovered this document that gives us a possible glimpse into the judge’s mind.

It’s an affidavit from Willona White that explains in her words why the judge set the $5000 bond.

She told the judge the next morning that she reluctantly cooperated with police after they refused to let her speak to James.

White then posted his bail.

Why would she do that? Why would she recant her statements made to police?

We have more insight into this Thursday. October 6th at 10 as we continue to dissect this horrific case that’s still set to go to court.

John James says he’s innocent.

We’ve been trying to give you the entire perspective, but I’m told those directly involved in the active court cases cannot discuss them.

Nonetheless, we’ll continue to examine the flaws in critical parts of the judicial system that’s putting the public in danger.