Plea For Help: Strangulation suspect pleads guilty, victim wants Pretrial system scrutinized

KOLD News 10-10:30 p.m. recurring
Published: Jan. 19, 2023 at 10:28 PM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - A young man accused of strangling the mother of his child has pleaded guilty to the felony charge.

Angel Carmona Rodriguez’s sentencing is set for March.

But the victim, Gracie McDonough, is criticizing the criminal justice system, saying she’s had to fight too hard for justice and it needs to be fixed.

13 News Investigates has been laying out McDonough’s case for months.

A security cam captured the suspect, Rodriguez, threatening to kill her and he confessed to detectives that he strangled her.

The judge released him within a day of his arrest and at one point the prosecutor had offered a lower plea deal.

The family is upset calling it a rubber stamp process that’s putting lives in danger.

McDonough just wants to move on with her life free of abuse.

In an interview a few months ago, McDonough told 13 Investigates that she’s felt victimized twice: first by her boyfriend, the father of her child, and then by the system designed to protect her because she’s had to fight so hard to get justice.

“I feel like they don’t take domestic violence seriously,” she said.

It’s been a difficult journey to justice that she said started with Rodriguez’s initial appearance in court.

It’s when a suspect appears before a judge, by law, within 24 hours of the arrest.

The judge then decides whether to give a bond or release the suspect with or without conditions.

The flow of information comes in fast.

“They’re very fast and it’s sometimes even less than 12 hours,” said presiding magistrate judge Tony Riojas, who’s been in that judicial seat for 20 years.

He trains the judges who come on board to do IA’s.

“And the judge is making decisions on the information that exists in that real short timeframe. Sometimes stuff comes out later that jeez I wish I had known that,” he said.

There are two IA sessions held 365 days a year covering all misdemeanor and felony crimes in Pima County.

“We’re probably doing 10,000 cases a year between all of us,” he said.

The information flowing to the 11 judges starts with an interim complaint, which describe the crime plus arrest charges and a report from Pretrial Services.

The judges also receive recommendations from the defense and prosecuting attorney.

But it’s only the judges who can determine what happens next to the suspects.

“Exactly, said Riojas, “I tell judges, if you don’t want your name in the press, don’t do initial appearances because every one of us has had a case that’s gone sideways. When it goes sideways, it goes very badly.”

Cases like Brandon Watts, Andres Machado, Robert Rosas, and John James.

They are all violent felons involved in domestic violence cases and released on low bonds.

They’re now sitting in jail accused of murder with the exception of Watts who killed himself.

“It’s a decision. You’re dealing with Human nature and human behavior. How do you predict it? I wish I knew,” said Riojas.

Former chief criminal deputy of the Pima County Attorney’s Office, David Berkman has criticized the system, saying some the sideways cases could have been avoided.

He appeared before the Pima County Board several months ago to point out flaws in the report the judges receive from Pretrial Service.

“Pretrial services is broken. They have a computer system, they punch something in, it gives a recommendation,” he said then. “And some of the recommendations for pretrial services and for release, they’re just not thought out and it’s causing a public safety problem.”

Riojas says he trusts the information he’s receiving from Pretrial Services.

“I have no reason to distrust it. I think the reporting information they get accurately. Now whether they’re getting accurate information is different. I may question their assessment of the information,” he said.

13 News Investigates reached out to Pretrial Services for an on cam interview, but the request was declined.

McDonough’s family says the Pretrial report in her case isn’t accurate.

The Plea for Help investigation continues.