Free To Kill: Criminal justice “breakdown” as domestic violence deaths rise

KOLD News 10-10:30 p.m. recurring
Published: Oct. 20, 2022 at 10:31 PM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - A criminal justice breakdown in Pima County has led to an alarming spike in domestic violence deaths.

They’re killings that some leaders say could have been prevented.

The issue centers on collaboration or the lack of it.

The wheels of justice has many components: law enforcement, victim services, defense attorneys, prosecuting attorneys, and the courts.

They all have to work together to ensure violent felons committing crimes are not released and free to kill.

And if any component is not functioning well: It can slow or stop a crucial process that’s needed to keep the public safe, especially in the case of domestic violence.

Emotions run high and behavior can be erratic.

With intimate partner violence, the wounds are deeper so disputes can lead to more danger.

And COVID, leaders say, made matters worse.

The homicide spike was alarming. The domestic violence spike was alarming. And as you so righteously focused on that domestic violence fueled the homicide spike, very very alarming,” Pima County Attorney Laura Conover said.

The murder cases that cycled through the criminal justice system, including the Pima County Attorney’s Office.

KOLD reported on several involving violent felons released on low bond.

Andres Machado sits in jail accused of shooting and killing a teen this year weeks from her graduation.

Last year, Brandon Watts killed his girlfriend and then himself after holding a family hostage.

And John James is accused of executing his wife and her kids in their home.

A risk assessment after a prior attack involving a gun revealed she was at high risk of murder.

Conover explained the office struggled through the COVID-19 pandemic.

“And communication went down. They stopped crisis response with victim services for awhile,” she said.

Anny Harper-Guerrero, who helps run Emerge Center Against Domestic Violence, said, the protocol had eroded over time.

“And so we’ve seen a decrease in the number of referrals coming to emerge,” she said.

And from Conover’s perspective, there’s a lot of rebuilding to do.

But the rebuilding, Emerge and other leaders said, is being constructed in a silo without much collaboration and communication.

Conover said she’s addressing domestic violence issues. “We run a monthly meeting called the Domestic Abuse Coalition, which has maybe 30 partners in the domestic violence arena.”

But Harper argued some issues are not being tackled, like why risk assessments are not protecting victims.

She said, currently no group is meeting to monitor how this tool is implemented and certain partners have been cut out of the conversations despite pleas to reignite the dialogue.

For Harper, the questions are: Where are the major gaps? What parts of these protocols aren’t being done at all?

“A wraparound service provider related to the victims of domestic violence feels they don’t have a seat at the table or their voice isn’t being listened to. That’s the time where we all need to be coming to the table at a leadership level and figuring out why that’s occurring,” Police Chief Chad Kasmar said.

Conover doesn’t believe there’s an issue with collaboration among the leaders.

“The collaboration that’s going on right now is really top notch,” she said.

And it’s these differing views that are keeping the reform needle from moving far enough to fix critical problems.

Conover shifts the blame away saying it’s not her office making the decision to give violent felons low bonds, it’s the judges who have the final word.

“The release occurred over our objection every single time,” she said.

And this memo reveals a dispute between Tucson City Attorney Mike Rankin and Conover.

Rankin told Mayor and Council he was concerned that 350 felony cases have “either been waived down or declined” shifting them over to the misdemeanor prosecution realm,” meaning city court.

“And those court systems aren’t necessarily set up to address the nature of the risk associated with those cases. They’re limited by way of their function,” Harper said.

Conover argued her data doesn’t support Rankin’s data and the cases lacked evidence to charge a felony.

“I’m not going to let data be the excuse of, well our numbers say X and your numbers say Y. The reality is we all have a process in which we decide which cases go forward,” Kasmar said.

Kasmar is now calling on a full systems transparency and review when failures happen.

KOLD will continue to dig as deep as we need to go for you to understand the full picture of why violent felons are released on low bond and free to kill.