Death by Screw-Up

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

"I'm satisfied that Mr. Romley is being open about this. He told us that a bad mistake had been made, and that this man shouldn't have been back on the street. Paul Ahler, the man who is prosecuting Spencer, had tears in his eyes as they were telling us. But there's nothing they or anybody can do to bring Shandora back. Nothing's going to bring her back."

All the fingerpointing in the County Attorney's Office does nothing to raise the spirits of Ken Johnson, who was Shandora's brother, closest friend and surrogate father.

"A tragedy is a tragedy," Ken Johnson says. "When somebody lets somebody out of jail and a tragedy occurs, it's unforgivable, okay? That sums it up in a nutshell, doesn't it?"

CLINTON SPENCER, on probation for felony child abuse, was in Maricopa County Jail last spring awaiting court action on an alleged crime spree. He was suspected of armed robbery, car theft and the beating of a robbery victim with a metal pipe.

A hearing on whether his probation would be revoked was conducted May 17 before Superior Court Judge Gloria Ybarra. A two-page transcript describes what happened in Ybarra's courtroom:

Assistant public defender Wes Peterson--acting as "warm body" for colleague Nora Greer--asks the judge to postpone the hearing. He also mentions that Greer had subpoenaed the Phoenix cops investigating the robberies, because she hadn't received the police reports on the incidents.

Rookie prosecutor Randy Redpath--the "warm body" for the County Attorney's Office, responds, "I don't have a file. I wasn't aware it was on the calendar this morning."

Ybarra notes that the court's written entry for the hearing had wrongly set the date for June 17, a Saturday. However, she adds, "The date was set correctly in the courtroom [during Spencer's arraignment] so whoever was here should have taken that date down for violation hearing today."

Ybarra then instructs Redpath to find out which prosecutor is responsible for the case.

The court takes a recess. Upon his return, Redpath has just one thing to say on the record.

"At this time," he tells Ybarra, "the state would move to dismiss the petition for violation."

"All right," the judge responds. "There will be an order dismissing on Mr. Spencer today."

Mitch Altschuler, the probation officer who had wanted Spencer's probation revoked, wasn't in the courtroom. Assuming that the hearing had been postponed, he called Ybarra's office later that day to get the date of Spencer's rescheduled hearing. Altschuler, who knew Spencer better than anyone else in the justice system and wanted to keep him locked up, learned only then that Spencer was back on the street. Three days later, Shandora Johnson-Morrow was murdered. The County Attorney's Office says Clinton Spencer did it.

"I had a prosecutor in court who looked bewildered," Judge Ybarra, a much-praised jurist who is a finalist for the current opening on the federal bench, tells New Times, "and I gave him time to find out what was happening. He came back into court with what he came back with. You can't force the county attorney to put on a case. I've agonized over this--I can't tell you how much. I've spoken with my husband--`What could I have done?' God, I feel so badly for that girl's family."

CLINTON SPENCER had already served prison time in Mississippi for forgery when he migrated to Arizona in the mid-Eighties. In May 1987, Spencer married Cathleen Jackson and they settled in Glendale. Only a few months later, Glendale police suspected Spencer of punching his six-year-old stepdaughter in the eye with a closed fist. Charges weren't pursued, however, and Spencer continued working at a furniture warehouse in Phoenix.

In March 1988, however, Glendale police again investigated Spencer for child abuse after a school nurse noticed deep, swollen bruises on the little girl's buttocks. The girl told authorities that Spencer and her mom had taken her to the desert after she misbehaved, bound her hands and feet and beaten her repeatedly with a sandal.

At separate hearings, Cathleen Jackson and Clinton Spencer pleaded no contest to child-abuse charges that could have brought a maximum prison term of just less than two years. In August 1988, after plea bargaining, Judge Gloria Ybarra placed Spencer on three years' probation--and no jail time. The judge also ordered Spencer to perform 100 hours of community-service work.

According to Spencer's probation officer, Mitch Altschuler, Spencer did reasonably well during the first seven months or so of his probation. He hadn't done any community service work as ordered, and he'd had several unspecified "domestic altercations" with his estranged wife. But Altschuler didn't want to ask a judge to revoke Spencer's probation on that alone.

In early April 1989, however, Spencer lost his $5.50-an-hour warehouse job. On April 15, a man was spotted by a security guard at Park Central Mall, on the second floor of the parking garage. The man was holding a chrome pipe in his hands but made no threatening moves with it. It was also discovered, however, that he had two cocaine-smoking pipes with white residue in the bowl.

The guard called the Phoenix cops, who arrested the man, later identified as Spencer, on a charge of possessing drug paraphernalia. However, the police released Spencer a few hours later without notifying probation officer Altschuler.

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