Death by Screw-Up

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

The next day, according to court records, Spencer got into another man's car on East McDowell Road and started fondling him. As the other man leaned back in his seat, Spencer punched him numerous times, until the man fled. Spencer and Joseph Morago, a local homosexual hustler with a criminal record, then allegedly sold the car to two undercover Phoenix cops for $180. However, the cops were conducting a sting operation and didn't arrest Spencer and Morago at the time. The cops didn't know at the time how Spencer had allegedly obtained the car.

Early on the morning of April 17, according to police reports, Spencer allegedly beat a Phoenix man with a metal pipe, and he and Morago stole the man's car. Again, the pair approached the undercover cops and sold them the victim's car, credit cards and checkbook for $400.

Later that day, the Phoenix cops arrested and jailed Spencer and Morago.
When Mitch Altschuler found out that Spencer was being accused of a crime spree, he immediately issued a "probation hold," which kept Spencer behind bars without bail.

On April 19, Altschuler filed a court petition to revoke Spencer's probation. In the petition, Altschuler listed the alleged robberies, the alleged possession of drug paraphernalia and his association with Morago--a person with a criminal record. All would be in violation of Spencer's August 1988 probation. Altschuler also listed two technical violations: Spencer's failures to do community service work and make regular payments to the county's Victim Compensation Fund.

It promised to be a fairly routine case. Clinton Spencer seemed likely to have his probation revoked, even if only one of the charges stuck.

"After the homicide," Jim Braden later told Romley's investigators, "I think it's very easy to look at this as a more serious case than what it was viewed as when we were looking at it at that time . . . There was nothing that made me think he was an unusually dangerous man during the handling of that case, up to the violation hearing."

BRADEN WAS ASSIGNED the Spencer case by his supervisor, Steve Windtberg, on April 26. Braden had been with the office for sixteen years, and his last evaluation by Windtberg generally had been excellent, including the written comment, "Jim knows his way around the courtroom and seems to enjoy the legal battles."

But there was a political history between Braden and Rick Romley, the deputy county attorney who was elected last year by voters to succeed Tom Collins. A few years ago, Romley took over from Braden as chief of the office's Family Support unit. Romley publicly berated Braden's performance in collecting child-support payments. The unit was viewed by most as an office disaster area.

The two weren't on friendly terms after that, but career prosecutor Braden didn't quit after Romley took over.

Braden remembers getting the Spencer file sometime in late April. That file included Altschuler's petition to revoke probation, which listed each of the allegations against Spencer. Spencer appeared for arraignment on April 28 in Judge Ybarra's court--a warm body filled in for Braden--and a May 17 probation violation hearing was set.

Actually, the judge's clerk erroneously listed the hearing on a court document as June 17, but that was a Saturday, and all the people crucial to the case but Braden--that includes the judge, the defense lawyer, and the probation officer--now say they knew the violation hearing was slated for May 17.

Spencer's attorney at the time, deputy public defender Nora Greer, had indicated that she planned to have a stand-in ask the judge to postpone the May 17 hearing for a few weeks because she'd be on vacation.

Still, Mitch Altschuler says he spoke with Braden about Clinton Spencer a few times in early May. Braden recalls those conversations.

"The discussion involved whether or not I had filed new charges against Spencer [for the alleged armed robberies with Morago]," Braden recalls. "I remember explaining that we did not have Spencer identified. And I remember that Mitch told me, `Oh, yes, we did, he is identified.' I told him, `Listen, it does not say that in my report.'"

But Altschuler's handwritten records from May indicate that it was Braden who told him on May 12--five days before the hearing--that Spencer had been identified as a suspect in one of the robberies.

Braden contends that he was unaware that Altschuler also had filed the "technical" probation violations against Spencer. Even those violations could have caused the court to revoke Spencer's probation, even if each of the robbery-related crimes somehow didn't hold up.

However, Altschuler's field reports, compiled before the Spencer affair blew up in everyone's faces, indicate that he specifically spoke with Braden about the "technicals" on May 4--thirteen days before the hearing.

Altschuler's records also say that he contacted assistant public defender Wes Peterson a few days before Spencer's still-scheduled May 17 violation hearing--just to make sure Peterson, subbing for Greer, was planning to ask for a postponement. Both Altschuler and Peterson later told Romley's investigators that that had been the game plan.

But Altschuler didn't stop there. His records show he tried in vain several times to contact Braden, just to make sure he wouldn't have to attend the hearing. Braden didn't return his calls. Braden says he never got the messages.

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