Plea for Help: Strangulation victim says pretrial services statement to judge is “wrong”

Young mother says system needs to be scrutinized to fix flaws that’s putting public safety at risk
KOLD News 10-10:30 p.m. recurring
Published: Jan. 23, 2023 at 10:35 PM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - Domestic violence has spiked in Pima County over the past few years, according to law enforcement and court officials.

But is the current criminal justice system equipped to handle the rise in cases to keep the public safe?

A strangulation victim says no and believes more needs to be done to fix flaws in the system.

13 News Investigates has done several stories now laying out Gracie McDonough’s case.

A security cam captured her boyfriend and father to her child, Angel Carmona Rodriguez, threatening to kill her and he confessed to detectives that he strangled her.

Yet, the judge released him at his initial appearance under the supervision of Pretrial Services.

McDonough and her family believe the problems started there and feel she wasn’t given fair treatment by the legal system.

Back in April, Rodriguez had his initial court appearance within 24 hours of his arrest.

Suspects of a crime are held in jail. They appear remotely before one of 11 magistrate judges who decide to hold or release.

The information flows fast.

Judges’ decisions are often made in a matter of minutes.

Clayton Kamm is Angel Carmona Rodriguez’s attorney.

Kamm’s job as a public defender is to ensure the court is complying with due process “to make sure the record’s clear on why a judge might be refusing to release somebody,” he said.

Defense attorneys as well as prosecuting attorneys and the judges rely in part on what’s in the Pretrial Service reports.

Magistrates are trained by the presiding judge Tony Riojas.

“I tell them use of pretrial services report as a starting point,” Riojas said.

The reports include a criminal history check, a narrative, and a Public Safety Assessment, which ranks suspects on a scale of one to six on their risk of failing to appear in court, and a recommendation on terms of release.

Pretrial also speaks with victims.

“What I recalled from the pretrial services report was that Gracie told Pretrial, I didn’t speak to Gracie, that she didn’t object to Mr. Carmona’s release. That’s the information the judge had,” Kamm said.

It’s written in the Pretrial Services Narrative”that “... she does not object to his release from custody.”

I reviewed this with Riojas, who oversees all the Initial Court Appearances.

He said judges rely heavily on a victim’s statement.

It’s the law.

The first line in the state statute covering “release on bailable offenses” states a judicial officer “shall take into account the views of the victim.”

But what if the victim fears for their safety if the defendant is released?

“That’s a very big factor in mind. That’s a crucial factor,” Riojas said.

But what happens when that crucial factor is flawed?

In McDonough’s case, her mother Sharon says the statement that she didn’t object to Rodriguez’s release from custody is wrong. And, Sharon McDonough added, her daughter never spoke to anyone from Pretrial Services.

“No contact with pretrial services at all that either of us recollects or that we can find any record of at all and we’ve been keeping pretty good records,” she said.

13 News Investigates reviewed the body cam video worn by the deputy who responded to the call.

He didn’t ask the question, McDonough didn’t say she didn’t object to his release, and it doesn’t appear in the incident detail report.

13 News Investigates reached out to PreTrial Services to clarify.

Pretrial Services declined an on-camera interview on any matters related to PTS, but did say in an email that they contact victims before IA hearings.

13 News Investigates asked for any proof that Gracie did talk to Pretrial Service before the initial court appearance, but no proof was given.

PTS director, Domingo Corona, sent this response:

“Victim or reference information we collect is protected under Rule 123 as it is work product.”

In other words, Corona is saying by law the proof, including any staff notes, dates, times, recordings, or statement letters, is protected from public view.

And the proof is not given to the judges before initial appearances either.

“I would probably not given it a second thought because first of all you’re working fast,” Riojas said.

The judge believes Pretrial Services has no incentive to “shade the truth,” because it’s simply a reporting agency giving an assessment.

“If they say X happened, X happened. I may have no way of knowing unless, the only way I could have countered that, is she had known about the initial court appearance and then she’s all in and said, ‘no, I don’t want him out of custody,’” Riojas said.

Sharon McDonough said McDonough never got that opportunity to talk to the IA judge to give her views, which is her constitutional right.

13 News examined why that happened.

And in the process discovered confusion within the system.