Janet Clams Up

AG Napolitano turns down her 60 Minutes of fame

One of the hottest topics in Arizona these days involves the case of Claude Maturana. He's the man who was convicted of murder and sentenced to die, until state doctors declared him mentally incompetent. The doctors refused to medicate Maturana and make him mentally competent -- just so he could be executed.

Maturana's case is still ongoing. He has been diagnosed with chronic paranoid schizophrenia. His record includes burglary and assault, and he now sits in prison for the 1990 murder of a 16-year-old Tucson boy.

Court is not the only place Claude Maturana's case is being discussed. This year, the state Legislature considered a bill that would amend the law to change the penalty for convicts in Maturana's situation. A citizens' commission is currently considering the issue, along with other death penalty matters. And last month, the top-rated CBS newsmagazine 60 Minutes came to town to do a story about the Maturana case.

60 Minutes interviewed state officials and others involved in the case, but the key player in the Maturana case -- and on Arizona death penalty issues in general -- refused to comment: Attorney General Janet Napolitano.

Napolitano enjoys a reputation among local media as straightforward and accessible, but she refused multiple requests from 60 Minutes, including one made in person by reporter Lesley Stahl, who actually stalked the AG at the state Capitol (sans camera).

Napolitano favors the death penalty, although she is on the record opposing executing the mentally retarded. But it's not clear what she thinks about the issue of restoring mentally incompetent convicts to competence with medication -- then killing them.

Dennis Burke, Napolitano's chief deputy, says his boss refused 60 Minutes' request because she favors local media over national (although Napolitano has granted interviews to national media in the past) and because she did not want to discuss an ongoing case (although she's done that in the past, too).

In other instances where ongoing cases have been discussed, Burke says, AG staffers have tried to stick to the facts already presented in court filings. "We weren't comfortable," he says, because the understanding was "that this would be more than a discussion of what we filed in the case."

Napolitano's office wasn't just against the notion of interviewing the AG. Burke acknowledges that Napolitano's staff called the Governor's Office to complain that Department of Health Services officials -- including Arizona State Hospital superintendent Jack Silver and medical director Jerry Dennis -- had agreed to go on camera.

Burke says that's because the AG's Office recently got into trouble in the courts for media interviews law enforcement officials granted in the Sammy "The Bull" Gravano drug case.

So what is Napolitano's personal position on the mental incompetence issue? She refused New Times' request to discuss her position and why she didn't do the 60 Minutes interview.

Burke says, "I asked her and she said, 'I don't want to be giving a quote on a story about how I'm not talking to another reporter.'"

Napolitano's chief deputy says his boss's position is made clear in briefs her office has filed on the subject.

But which briefs? The AG apparently feels strongly both ways. The criminal side is in favor of restoration of competence, a position noted in legal briefs and reflecting Arizona state law. But the AG's civil division represents the state Department of Health Services, whose doctors deemed Claude Maturana incompetent, then refused to medicate him to restore competence, a position supported by both the American Medical Association and American Psychiatric Association. After doctors at the state hospital refused to do so, Silver -- on the advice of the hospital's attorney -- advertised for a doctor who would. He queried the licensed psychiatrists and nurse practitioners in Maricopa County, then statewide. No one was willing. Silver finally found a doctor in Georgia who works in the corrections field who came to Arizona and examined Maturana. The doctor declared that even without additional medication, Maturana is mentally competent.

Burke says the AG's official position is clear: The statute must be upheld. And the statute says competence should be restored.

All of which still begs the question: Why won't Janet Napolitano talk about it publicly? Could it be politics? Napolitano is widely considered the Democrats' best hope at claiming the governor's seat in 2002. She could risk alienating her liberal base -- and even moderate Republicans, like state Senator Sue Gerard, who sponsored the now-dead measure to change the mental competence law -- by coming out strongly in support of the issue. Conversely, by opposing it, she could lose favor with conservatives she might hope to woo with her typically tough-on-crime stances.

Bob Grossfeld, president of The Media Guys, a Tempe-based polling and media consulting firm, says that typically a death penalty issue involving mental incompetence would not register high on voters' radar in a gubernatorial race.

"It would be easily overridden by the big three: the economy, education, crime and occasionally the environment," he says.

But if an opponent had a sound bite from a 60 Minutes interview with Napolitano, the scenario could change entirely, Grossfeld adds. "It can probably be used very effectively as a point of attack on the character of a candidate."

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