Former chief criminal prosecutor for Pima County calls strangulation plea deal “outrageous”

KOLD News 10-10:30 p.m. recurring
Published: Nov. 29, 2022 at 10:34 PM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - A strangled victim’s plea for help to fix the Pima County criminal justice system.

Her family is angry calling it a rubber stamp process that’s putting lives in grave danger.

And now we’re hearing from a former chief prosecutor in the county attorney’s office, who explains how the system is failing to protect victims.

Gracie McDonough’s says boyfriend of 4 years, Angel Carmona Rodriquez, is accused of strangling her, a felony.

He confessed to the crime yet he’s released soon after his arrest.

McDonough believes he needs to stay in jail because he’s extremely violent.

Again, we are not here to determine Rodriquez’s guilt or innocence that’s up to a jury in a courtroom if it gets that far.

But rather we’re examining what the family and leaders say is a breakdown in the system that’s putting lives in danger.

A death threat captured in an audio recording.

He had said, “You are going to die today.”

Mounting evidence of violence includes flashes of temper, pictures of Gracie bloodied and bruised throughout their relationship, and a confession that he strangled her.

And when asked by a detective if McDonough was lying, Rodriguez responded, “No. She wouldn’t be lying.”

Rodriguez was arrested on two felony charges, strangulation and kidnapping, yet a judge releases him from jail right away.

McDonough and her family were rocked when they found out.

“Because I was with him for 4 years and saw the type of person he is. I want him to go to jail. I want something to happen. He’s not gonna change,” she said.

And now she fears for her life.

If a victim is strangled even one time. studies show she is 750% more likely to be killed by her abuser.

“I’m scared to do anything because I have a restraining order on him, but if I go to the gas station and he’s there, I can call the cops, but in that five minutes, if he wants me dead, I’ll be dead,” McDonough said.

The Pima County Attorney’s Office had first offered a plea agreement, the lowest felony level, Class 6: Unlawful Imprisonment that can be treated as a misdemeanor later on.

So the two more serious felony charges had been taken entirely off the table.

“That’s outrageous”, said former PCAO chief criminal deputy David Berkman, “I don’t know how they would come up with a plea agreement like that based on the evidence. And the only reason it didn’t go through is the victim fought tooth and nail.”

McDonough said she feels more has been done to protect Rodriguez, the accused, than her, the victim.

“It would have been a complete injustice to the victim into the criminal justice system. This was a good case,” Berkman said.

Records show the county attorney’s office later changed the plea deal brought back the more serious strangulation charge and then, the family said, a prosecutor apologized to McDonough.

“I give credit to whoever that was who apologized. That’s the appropriate thing to do. Mistakes are made. The other mistake was the request of a bond of $2,500 when you’re talking about somebody who said, You’re gonna die today,’ and just basically ignore it,” Berkman said.

Rodriguez had been arrested a week after the attack which Berkman said was plenty of time for the county attorney’s office to gather details in the case.

A risk assessment done the day of the attack reveals McDonough is at high risk, meaning her life is still in danger.

Gracie’s mother, Sharon McDonough, believes the justice system rubber stamped her daughter’s case.

“A rubber stamp method that says, well, he doesn’t have a history. Well, why doesn’t he have a history, because it’s been buried or because he’s made threats to keep that from happening,” she said.

The detectives who interviewed Rodriguez after his arrest had dug into his history.

“We had information you might carry a handgun. You were associated with pretty bad dudes. Okay and that trails you,” one detective was recorded saying.

And a potential misdemeanor in the case is “just not good practice,” according to Berkman.

And it appears these plea agreements are fairly common in strangulation cases.

KOLD looked at the 42 arrests from jail records over the past two years.

Half the names did not appear in the Superior Court system, meaning some or most were likely waived down as misdemeanors or declined all together.

Out of 20 cases, prosecutors offered 14 plea deals with eight of them the same charge as in McDonough’s case: Unlawful Imprisonment class 6 felony.

“Certainly there are cases where you can’t prove the case. You have trouble with the case, then you offer a lesser charge. But in this case, it doesn’t seem like they paid any attention to what the evidence was,” Berkman said.