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.

On July 18, however, more than four months after the incident occurred, Crawford was notified that she had been charged with Dangerous Aggravated Assault, a Class 3 felony. If she is convicted, the well-to-do Scottsdale mother of two, a homeowner with no prior offenses and solid ties in the community, faces up to 15 years in prison.

The minimum sentence Crawford may receive is five years, with a presumptive (that is, normal or average) sentence of 7.5 years. Under Arizona's Truth in Sentencing Law, which became effective January 1, convicts must serve at least 85 percent of the prison sentences they receive. In other words, if Crawford is convicted, she will go to prison for at least four years and three months.

"I still can't believe it," she says. "This whole thing has just taken over my life. I'm a normal person. I thought I was protecting my home and my family, and they're making it look like I'm some kind of criminal."

If Romley's weapons policy has generated senseless, expensive trials of first offenders--and it has--many defense attorneys also question the spotty application of that policy. The September 1993 memo which announced it says: "This policy shall not be deviated from except in the most extraordinary of circumstances."

The word "extraordinary," however, seems to mean different things at different times in the County Attorney's Office. The case of William Mead, for example, is a sad one. Whether it qualifies as extraordinary is certainly debatable. On April 16, Mead, 31, was camping in the Tonto National Forest, near Horseshoe Dam on the Verde River. He was with 13 other people, including his girlfriend and her two children. Witnesses say that at about 7 p.m., after consuming several cans of beer, he removed a 12-gauge shotgun from his Chevrolet Blazer and fired several rounds toward the water. Subsequent events are detailed in records from the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office.

Those records say another man, John Perez, was camping nearby with four other people, including his wife. Witnesses said that Perez, who had been napping in the bed of his pickup truck, was awakened by the gunfire. Irritated by Mead's actions, he approached the other man's campsite--after retrieving a Taurus nine-millimeter semiautomatic pistol from the cab of his truck. Perez told deputies that he concealed the weapon inside his waistband, and pulled his shirt over it.

Perez told sheriff's deputies that he approached the camp and asked Mead if he had been doing the shooting. Mead at first denied, but then admitted, that he had fired the shots, Perez said. Then, sheriff's reports show, Mead asked, "What the hell is it to you?" Perez said he called Mead an idiot and told him that there were people nearby who could be hurt.

Mead and Perez began cursing each other. Their argument quickly turned physical. Perez said Mead shoved him, at which point he pulled the gun from under his shirt. As he did so, Perez said, Mead jumped on him. As they were struggling, both men facing each other on their knees, the gun fired for the first time.

The two continued to struggle, both of them with their hands on the gun. Perez told police that they shoved the barrel of the gun back and forth at each other, while both attempted to get to their feet. The gun went off a second time; Mead staggered back a few feet, stood still for a moment, then collapsed.

Perez said he fired twice; witnesses said they heard between one to four shots; deputies later found three spent shell casings from Perez's weapon. Several witnesses said that the whole incident, beginning with Perez entering the camp and ending as Mead lay dying on the ground, took less than one minute.

An autopsy showed that Mead was struck once in the neck. The bullet entered on the right side and traveled downward and to the left, piercing Mead's trachea and carotid artery before exiting his back.

On September 6, deputy county attorney Karen L. O'Connor wrote a letter to Mead's father, William Sr., informing him that no charges would be filed in the shooting. The letter says the County Attorney's Office had declined to prosecute the case because it could not be proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Perez was not defending himself, as he claimed.

"This guy shoots an unarmed man, and he was defending himself?" William Mead Sr. says. "I don't understand it."

Nicholas Hentoff, a Phoenix attorney who is representing William Mead Sr., says Romley's office has prosecuted cases with far less evidence.

Although Perez, who admitted to police that he also had been drinking, approached Mead's camp to complain about the shotgun blasts, there is no evidence to indicate that Mead had the shotgun in his immediate possession, Hentoff says. Several witness statements indicate that in the course of a verbal confrontation, Perez pulled an illegally concealed handgun on Mead and shot him during a struggle. According to Arizona law, the use of deadly force may only be justified if the person who uses it can show that he was in "imminent apprehension" of death or serious bodily injury. Hentoff says that criterion is not met in this case. Even if it were, he says, the case should be submitted to a grand jury for consideration of an indictment on other gun charges, such as carrying an illegally concealed weapon.

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