Suspended Animation

Two senior court officers sit at home, wondering if they've been blacklisted

On September 30, 1998, Perry Mitchell's supervisors at Maricopa County Superior Court evaluated him: "Perry is well positioned to lead the further expansion of Pretrial Services, planned for the next few years, and his future with the court is very bright!"

One year later, however, things changed drastically for Mitchell, the director of the court's nationally recognized pretrial services office. The unit, which has nearly 50 employees, is the judiciary's "eyes and ears" when defendants are released from custody until their cases are concluded.

Mitchell and one of his top managers have been suspended with pay since October 7, after a colleague raised allegations involving a defendant in the highly publicized Chipman Road gang-rape case, in which the victim was a mentally handicapped teenage girl.

Darrion Hartley reacts with his attorney (back) to the announcement of the guilty verdict.
Darrion Hartley reacts with his attorney (back) to the announcement of the guilty verdict.
Court administrator Gordon Griller
Mark Lang
Court administrator Gordon Griller

The allegations against the pretrial services officers: that Mitchell and Clifford Sells acted far too leniently with Darrion Hartley after they found the 17-year-old in bed with an unidentified female in the early morning hours, weeks before his conviction last July on rape and kidnaping charges.

The allegations came from Robert Edwards, a pretrial services officer who was with his supervisors Mitchell and Sells when they went to the young man's south Phoenix home on a curfew check. Edwards later told authorities that his associates hadn't adequately questioned Hartley, nor had they sought the identity or age of his female guest.

Mitchell, Sells and the defendant, Hartley, are black. Edwards is white. So this conflict is tinged by suspicions of racial bias.

Versions of what happened at Darrion Hartley's house provided to New Timesby Mitchell and Sells (Edwards did not respond to calls seeking comment) are markedly different from Edwards'.

In separate interviews, they say Hartley answered the door within 30 seconds after they knocked. Mitchell says he saw the shape of a human figure -- Hartley told them it was an 18- or 19-year-old woman -- under the sheets of a hide-a-bed in a living room just inside the home. According to Mitchell, Hartley said he'd met her at a mall earlier that day.

Mitchell and Sells agree with Edwards that they never asked to speak with or even see the girl. They also didn't ask to speak with Darrion Hartley's father, even though Hartley said he was in another room at the house.

One reason they didn't, Mitchell says, is that nothing in Superior Court Judge Gregory Martin's release order barred Hartley from entertaining a female at his residence. He adds that, since Hartley wasn't on probation or parole, hadn't yet been convicted of a crime and apparently hadn't broken any laws that night, Mitchell and his colleagues had no reason nor right to pursue the matter.

But Mitchell insists that he did berate Hartley about the propriety of having a female spend time with him during his trial for kidnaping and raping another young woman.

"Bob Edwards told the AG's people that we never addressed the kid," Mitchell says. "That's a lie. We spoke to Darrion outside, and we spoke to him directly. You also have to remember -- Darrion wasn't on probation or parole at the time, and had been found guilty of nothing. We didn't have the authority to pull him in, even if we'd wanted to, which we didn't."

The three left Hartley's home around 1 a.m. Mitchell and Sells say Edwards didn't complain then about what had transpired, and that the trio discussed the incident only briefly as they moved on to the next defendant.

Mitchell says he told Judge Martin about the early Friday morning incident on the following Monday, in a brief conversation at the courthouse. Martin confirms to New Timesthat Mitchell did speak to him about Hartley. He says he told Mitchell that he wasn't pleased, even though the teen technically hadn't violated any court orders.

The incident seemed forgotten in the aftermath of Hartley's conviction and subsequent prison sentence. (Martin sentenced Hartley to eight years in prison, the second-longest term imposed on the five Chipman Road defendants who went to trial. Four other young men had plea-bargained earlier to reduced charges. Prosecutors dropped charges against the 10th defendant several months ago.)

But it wasn't over.

Michael Cudahy, chief of the criminal division of the Arizona Attorney General's Office, says Maricopa County officials asked his office, before the October 7 suspensions, to look into possible criminal wrongdoing by Mitchell and Sells.

It's uncertain what laws the men could have broken, though attorneys contacted by New Timessay that it could be argued that Mitchell and Sells obstructed justice by not ascertaining the girl's age -- if, indeed, it was a girl. Then again, if the girl was of age, Hartley wasn't.

Mitchell and Sells cooperated with the AG's investigators, and submitted to separate interviews without the presence of attorneys. Cudahy says his office concluded that a full-scale criminal investigation was unwarranted.

"We informed Maricopa County of our findings after we completed the review," he says. "That effectively took the matter out of our hands and put it back into the mode of a county personnel issue."

Mitchell and Sells remain on suspension, their futures as Maricopa County employees in limbo. Both men say they didn't know the AG's investigation had "cleared" them until New Timestold them last week.

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