Death by Screw-Up

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

WHY DID PROSECUTOR Randy Redpath ask for a dismissal on May 17?
Redpath claimed in a July interview with a county attorney's investigator that Jim Braden came down to Ybarra's court during the recess and requested to him "that the case be dismissed, as he [Braden] was not prepared, and no witnesses were present to testify on the matter."

Braden told the internal investigators that he had gone to Ybarra's court that morning--even though he says he couldn't find the file--because a phone message from Mitch Altschuler had alerted him that something was going on.

Braden also told Romley's investigators, according to the report, that he had a short conversation with assistant public defender Wes Peterson outside Ybarra's courtroom: "I have the distinct recollection that Wes kind of grinned and said, `Well, maybe we won't continue it [the hearing].' I told Randy, `We're not ready to proceed on this case today, we can't go on it, there's no way . . . If they're not going to agree to the continuance, and if we have to, we just have to dismiss it.'"

However, Wes Peterson insisted to investigators that he never even hinted to Braden that he planned to go forward with the hearing that day. After all, Peterson was just the public defender's "warm body" on the Spencer case.

SHANDORA JOHNSON-MORROW actually saw her mother murdered by an ex-boyfriend in 1979. After that, she grew up in Phoenix under the wing of her aunt Joy--she'd call her "Auntie Mom"--and older brother Ken Johnson.

By the time she graduated from Mesa Westwood High in 1986, Shandora already had a job as a beautician at a local salon. Popular, attractive and respected in high school, Shandora was one of three student speakers at her graduation.

"I dedicate this speech to my mom, who wasn't able to attend tonight," she told her fellow students. "I want to speak to you about judging people too soon, too harshly, and wrong."

Shandora's family says she lived her life that way, that she was an optimistic person with a winning smile, always willing to give someone the benefit of the doubt. She started night school at Mesa Community College while maintaining her full-time job. A short-lived marriage to a high-school sweetheart was ending in divorce, and Shandora moved back in with Auntie Mom.

No one is sure exactly how Shandora crossed paths with Clinton Spencer on the evening of May 19. Police reports say she may have offered Spencer a ride at a Circle K in Tempe. Her family says she's the type of person who would trust strangers.

A female friend of Shandora's later told investigators that she had seen a man approach Shandora at the Circle K. Shandora had followed the friend to the store in a different car and told her she was giving the guy a lift.

Soon after that, the friend and Shandora met at a nightclub only a few blocks from the Circle K. Later that evening, a man--subsequently identified in a police line-up as Spencer--was seen sitting on the hood of Shandora's car outside the nightclub.

Several hours later, a Buckeye resident called authorities to say he had spotted a fire in the desert. Police identified Shandora's charred body through dental records.

She had been stabbed twice in the back, and DNA testing now is being done to determine if the semen found in her body was Spencer's.

Spencer is accused of selling Shandora's car to undercover police officers on May 21. He was arrested that day. At the time of his arrest, according to police, he was trying to borrow money from one of the undercover cops so he could leave for California.

ON MAY 23, probation officer Mitch Altschuler refiled his probation revocation petition against Clinton Spencer. About the only difference between the April 19 petition that prosecutors asked to be dropped and the new one was the allegation that Spencer kidnaped and murdered Shandora Johnson-Morrow.

It took more than five weeks after Spencer's arrest on murder charges before the County Attorney's Office officially started investigating The Screw-up.

In the meantime, ironically, Jim Braden successfully had secured grand jury indictments against Spencer in those April armed robberies and trafficking cases.

In late July, Judge Ybarra sentenced Spencer to the maximum term of almost two years in prison for violating his probation in the child-abuse case.

Soon after prosecutor Paul Ahler took the Spencer murder case, he says, he noticed a glitch. "Anyone would want to know why the first probation violation had been dismissed," Ahler says.

Jim Braden was put on administrative leave with pay while the investigation took shape.

On August 3, Romley formally wrote Braden "to notify you in advance of my decision to terminate you from your position with the County Attorney's Office." Romley's letter also said, in part: "You have carelessly and negligently ignored your duties to this office, to the criminal justice system, and to the public. Your mishandling of this case is reprehensible, entirely unacceptable, and fails to meet even minimal standards of conduct for this office." Braden says he considered fighting the matter, but on August 10, he quit, writing Romley, "It is obvious that I have been made a scapegoat of the system in order to satisfy your political needs . . . . I have no desire to engage in a long, drawn-out process which would accomplish nothing other than further lower the public's opinion of the workings of your office."

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