Death by Screw-Up

Why did this young woman die? Ask the county attorney's office.

The man charged with the brutal murder last spring of a twenty-year-old woman was mistakenly released from jail only three days before the murder because of a flagrant error by Maricopa County prosecutors, New Times has learned.

No one in the County Attorney's Office is contesting that "The Screw-up," as everyone seems to call it, cost Shandora Johnson-Morrow her life.

The suspect, convicted child abuser Clinton Spencer, has pleaded innocent to charges that he kidnaped her from a Tempe convenience market on the night of May 19, stabbed her to death, set her body on fire in the desert outside Buckeye and sold her car the next day to undercover Phoenix police.

County Attorney Rick Romley says: "The girl didn't have to die."
Spencer, 31, had been in jail for alleged probation violations--some of them violent and some of them technical--when rookie prosecutor Randy Redpath of the County Attorney's Office surprisingly asked a judge on May 17 to dismiss the case.

Incredibly, this request came after an attorney representing Spencer asked the judge only for a postponement of the probation revocation hearing. Such postponements are the norm in Superior Court, and Spencer was prepared to continue to sit in jail. But when Judge Gloria Ybarra granted the state's request, he was freed.

County Attorney Rick Romley blames one of his veteran prosecutors, Jim Braden, for "The Screw-up." Braden, who resigned last month under pressure from Romley, blames "the system"--an overall breakdown in the County Attorney's Office. He accuses Romley of a personal vendetta and of making him a "scapegoat." Romley aide Myrna Parker conducted a month-long probe of The Screw-up, which concluded that Braden was solely responsible. A copy of Parker's report was obtained by New Times after whispers of The Screw-up started circulating outside the courthouse.

"Nothing could be worse than what happened--nothing," Romley tells New Times. "It's a prosecutor's nightmare. . . . It's more than negligence on the part of the prosecutor who screwed this up--it was willful. It was his wrongdoing, but it's my office, and I'm ultimately responsible."

Romley vehemently denies a "vendetta" against Braden. "All I'm trying to do," says Romley, "is to try to improve the professionalism of our office. Braden simply didn't meet those standards."

Braden faults the county attorney's system of assigning and monitoring cases. "These people are sitting there with a system that's designed to fail," says Braden's lawyer, Stan Lubin, "and when it did, they looked for a scapegoat. Rick Romley had a hard-on for Jim Braden for a long time before this, and he made Jim his scapegoat."

Braden tells New Times that he can't specify anything that he did wrong that day in May. "I didn't tell Randy to dismiss it," he says. "I just told him that if the defense wanted to proceed, we weren't ready. On Monday, I got a call from the probation officer, who says, `Why did you dismiss this case?' I said I didn't know what had happened. He tells me, `This guy got out and killed someone.' I thought, `Jesus Christ! This is the one thing in the world you don't want to have happen--and it happened.'"

The case does reveal the inherent danger in the "warm body" system that prevails in the busy offices of Maricopa County's prosecutors and public defenders. In this system, lawyers assigned to cases commonly get their associates--they use the term "warm bodies"--to stand in for them during routine court appearances in ongoing cases. Sometimes, warm bodies stand in for warm bodies.

Lubin also blames that system, saying, "The stakes here are so high, but professionals make mistakes, and when they do, someone has to be able to fix the mistake before a catastrophe occurs. If Jim was screwing up--if--and they had had a system in place, they would have caught it. You've got a county attorney in Rick Romley who is trying to make political hay out of supposedly cleaning the office up, when in fact he and his people are dumping on selected parties for their own inadequacies."

However, according to a sworn affidavit by chief deputy prosecutor Jim Keppel, Braden was contrite during a July interview by Keppel and Paul Ahler--Romley's trial bureau chief who discovered The Screw-up earlier that month.

"I asked him [Braden] what his initial reaction was to the information [about Spencer's arrest for murder]," Keppel's affidavit says. "He stated, `I fucked up.' I asked him how he `fucked up,' and he stated that he had not checked the court file to determine whether there were any technical violations alleged in the petition to revoke probation."

Braden tells New Times, "Keppel took a lot of things out of context. My thinking was from the standpoint `we or I screwed up' . . . . At that time, I wasn't sure what really happened. I wasn't sure about the technical [violations] at that point."

LAST MONTH, ROMLEY and his aides told the family of Shandora Johnson-Morrow about The Screw-up.

"It never, never, never, never should have happened," says Shandora's aunt, Joy Law, a Phoenix schoolteacher who raised Shandora from the age of eleven after her mother was murdered in New Mexico.

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