Plea for Help: Confusion uncovered in the Pima County Criminal Justice System

PCSD changes policy and procedure to fix flaws in domestic violence system
KOLD News 10-10:30 p.m. recurring
Published: Jan. 24, 2023 at 10:29 PM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - 13 News Investigates discovered a breakdown in the domestic violence system that could be putting some victims’ safety at risk.

The flaw uncovered has the attention of critical players in the system and now changes are being made.

13 News Investigates has been diving deep into a strangulation case for months now peeling back the layers of Gracie McDonough’s case, which is still moving through the system.

Her ex-boyfriend and the father of her child Angel Carmona Rodriquez recently pleaded guilty to strangling her.

But even though he confessed to the crime the judge had released him with no bond hours after his arrest.

Men and women accused of felony and misdemeanor crimes line up to sit in front of a magistrate judge for their initial court appearance.

It’s now done remotely and by law within 24 hours of an arrest.

The judge’s decision on whether to release or hold them is mostly made in a matter of minutes.

Presiding judge Tony Riojas explains judges want to hear the views of the victims. And if a victim says they fear for their safety if the defendant is released, Riojas said, it’s a “big factor” into his decision.

As was the case during this December initial appearance when a victim called in about a man accused of 3 counts of domestic violence. The victim said the defendant broke down the front door, chased them into their son’s room and pushed them against a wall.

The judge decided to set bond rather than release on his own recognizance.

But in Gracie McDonough’s case, her mother, Sharon, said she didn’t get the chance to talk to the judge.

Deputies arrested Angel Carmona Rodriguez eight days after the strangulation incident and hours later, the judge released him under the supervision of Pretrial Services.

Sharon McDonough said they had no idea an initial appearance had been scheduled.

“She would have given the message saying he needs to be in jail for me to feel safe. So that opportunity was taken away,” she said.

Riojas said that would have been critical information because the Pretrial Service report to the initial appearance judge shows that Gracie McDonough said she didn’t object to his release.

A point made to the judge during Rodriguez’s initial appearance.

Statement made during initial appearance reads, “The victim doesn’t object to his release from custody.”

Sharon McDonough insists it isn’t true and that her daughter never said that.

Pretrial Services won’t confirm they spoke to Gracie McDonough, citing it’s privileged information.

Rodriguez’s defense attorney, Clayton Kamm, also saw that in the report and believed McDonough said that.

But if Kamm’s office is relying on information from Pretrial Services, can he totally trust that? Kamm said he isn’t sure.

Kamm and Riojas say hearing directly from victims is critically important in the process to ensure the rights of not only suspects, but victims. The constitution demands that these victims are contacted by the court, Kamm said.

So who should have contacted McDonough about Rogriguez’s arrest to give her the opportunity to appear before the judge?

There seems to be confusion in Pima County.

The Sheriff’s Department told 13 News Investigates that “Pre Trial Services is responsible for providing the victim with the information.”

The Pretrial Services director responded, “The County Attorney is responsible for victim notification.”

The County Attorney’s Office said that’s not correct because, “the investigating law enforcement agency is responsible.”

In Rodriguez’s case, the investigating law enforcement agency is the Pima County Sheriff’s Department.

So 13 News Investigates went back to the department to discuss the confusion.

Sergeant Derek Welch supervises the domestic violence unit. He said the responsibility to update the victim in a criminal case lies with Pretrial Services.

According to state law, “the law enforcement agency shall notify the victim of the arrest and time, place and date of the initial appearance.”

However, Welch insisted that is done by Pretrial Services prior to the initial appearance.

“I think the piece that is being misconstrued is the fact that we have to know the exact date and time of the initial appearance to make that notification to the victim,” Welch said.

Although he’s now saying here that the department waits for that information to notify victims about an initial appearance, 13 News Investigates informed him that McDonough said she never received a call about the initial appearance and never got a chance to talk to the judge.

Welch again insisted that’s not the department’s responsibility.

“As far as pretrial services notification, I’m not sure if they attempted to contact Gracie or not. They won’t release their records to me on that regard,” he said.

So what about Tucson Police?

13 News Investigates posed the same question to the agency: Who’s responsible for notifying the victim of an arrest?

TPD responded it’s the law enforcement agency.

Welch told 13 News Investigates he’s now reviewing the process within the Pima County Sheriff’s Department.

“I can see that there’s a problem and there will likely be some policy changes,” he said.

Sheriff Chris Nanos, after seeing the Arizona statute, said he is implementing new procedures and policy changes.

“I want to thank you for alerting me to a problem that’s been existent. Did we miss this one? Yes, we did. Will we fix it? Absolutely, we will,” Nanos said to 13 News.