LAWYERS, GUNS AND PUBLICITY

THE COUNTY ATTORNEY'S HARD-LINE POLICY ON GUN CASES HAS GOTTEN HIM GOOD PRESS. IT'S ALSO CLOGGED THE COURTS, COST A LOT OF MONEY AND NEEDLESSLY IMPRISONED FIRST OFFENDERS.

Romley's office denies these charges. Special assistant county attorney Barnett Lotstein says the office is consistent and fair in its application of the policy, regardless of the simplicity or complexity of individual cases.

"The prosecutors are obligated to follow the deadly-weapons policy in all cases," he says. "But there is a provision for exception in extraordinary circumstances. If a prosecutor feels that the result would be too harsh, he brings that appeal to his bureau chief."

Lotstein denies that pressing for exceptions to the policy can harm a prosecutor's career. "They are not intimidated in any way from coming and having the matter reviewed," he says.

Critics are not attacking Romley's weapons policy solely on equity grounds. The guns-get-prison edict also has an economic cost.

Simply put, the policy is clogging an already overburdened court system with gun trials. Defendants have no incentive to plead guilty when the only deal that can be offered to them must include prison time. So those defendants go to trial, placing additional burdens on a Public Defender's Office that is already shortstaffed and underfunded.

Dean Trebesh, director of the county Public Defender's Office, says that his staff's case load exploded once Romley's weapons policy went into effect.

Since July 1, increased workloads have forced the Public Defender's Office to assign more than 700 criminal cases to private lawyers, who wind up being paid out of the public till. If the trend continues through the end of this fiscal year, it will end up costing the cash-strapped county nearly $3 million, the county Office of Court Appointed Counsel says.

"[Romley's] entitled to do whatever he wants to do, but there's a cost issue connected with it," Trebesh says. "It's led to compounding our crisis over here, and it's become detrimental to the county from a cost perspective."

The burgeoning case load has also been noticed by county criminal judges. Superior Court Judge Ronald Reinstein says he has noticed an increase in the number of trials on gun-related offenses, especially Dangerous Aggravated Assault. At the same time, he says, the county attorney's conviction rate seems to be going down--despite the office's push for a good win-loss record.

"The conviction rate has been lower than it used to be," Reinstein says. "It used to be that they took pleas in these cases." He says he's noticed a larger number of hung juries and guilty verdicts on lesser charges--that is, charges that do not carry long mandatory prison sentences.

Reinstein also says that he would see no problem with the policy as long as exceptions to mandatory prison time could be made in the right circumstances.

"There should be a line drawn in the sand," Reinstein says. "But at the same time, you can't put everybody in a little box and say that every single gun case is going to go to prison. And I think that's how it started off initially."

Sherrie Crawford apparently is not an exception. She and her two teenage daughters were cleaning out the garage of their large, well-appointed Scottsdale home on the sunny afternoon of March 6. There were two cars parked in the driveway--Crawford's 1993 Cadillac Eldorado and her daughter's Toyota Celica.

At about 2:30 p.m., a blue pickup truck slowly drove past the house and parked about halfway up the block. Crawford says she noticed that no one got out of the truck, which sat there for about the next 45 minutes.

The driver of the truck, which includes a towing mechanism, was Todd Demerritt, a car repossessor for Allstate Insurance. He was there to take Crawford's Cadillac; a mortgage company claimed no payments had been made on it for three months.

Demerritt told police that he sat in his truck up the street until he thought the three women had gone inside. When he pulled his truck into the driveway, however, he saw that the three were in the garage, just out of sight from the street. Demerritt says he got out of the truck, told Crawford why he was there, and showed her the repossession paperwork.

Crawford says he never identified himself (it's the first of many discrepancies between their stories), and she went into the house to find her cordless phone so she could call the police. She was looking for it in her living room when, she says, she heard her daughters scream. A few seconds later, she says, she emerged from the house--not with the phone, but with a nine-millimeter Smith and Wesson pistol.

Demerritt told police she held the gun in her trembling left hand and pointed it at him. Crawford and three other witnesses--her two daughters and a neighbor--say the gun was in her right hand and never pointed anywhere but at the ground. Crawford and the three witnesses say that she told him to get off her property several times. Demerritt said she didn't make such a statement.

Everyone agrees that after a few tense moments, Demerritt reached into his truck, pulled out a cellular phone and called 911.

Before long, the Scottsdale police arrived. They calmed everyone down, allowed Demerritt to take the car and told Crawford that she was not in any trouble, a point that one officer called that evening to reiterate. She has a tape recording of that conversation.

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