Blood on their hands

Six hours after County mental health officials sent a psychotic man back home, he killed his mother and young niece.

And Rodney Aviles was released without anyone warning Mauricia Aviles or her family of the real physical dangers they could face in light of his mental illness (mothers of schizophrenics are statistically at far higher risk than the rest of the population, according to the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill).

"Maricopa County has taken irony to a new level with the Aviles family," contends Jeffrey Miller, the family's civil attorney.

"First, the family entrusts Rodney to the county because they are concerned for him and for themselves, and need help. Then the county releases Rodney prematurely, saying that he is not a danger to himself or others. Then he kills his mother and niece, and the county's response is to seek the death penalty -- over the family's objection -- for someone who is clearly mentally ill, [all the while] denying that the county did anything wrong. The time for the county to be aggressive was before anyone was dead."

Famed attorney Gerry Spence took on Rodney Aviles' 
case for free.
Famed attorney Gerry Spence took on Rodney Aviles' case for free.
Lenny Aviles with his daughter and mom, shortly before 
the tragedy.
Lenny Aviles with his daughter and mom, shortly before the tragedy.


A few years ago, one of Rodney's two sisters sent an impassioned e-mail to one of America's most famed attorneys.

Anita Watson pleaded with lawyer Gerry Spence to help keep her brother Rodney off death row, where Maricopa County prosecutors then wanted to send him.

Spence -- he of the signature fringed-Buckskin jacket and silver tongue -- became intrigued by the myriad legal issues and heartbreaking facts of the Phoenix double-murder.

He soon spoke with Rodney's attorney, assistant public defender Vikki Liles, whom he happened to know. Spence then told Anita that he'd work for free as her brother's co-counsel.

Spence had many reasons to be interested. First, the Aviles siblings deeply opposed a death sentence for Rodney, even though he'd killed their fellow family members (Alexia's mother, Lulu, didn't oppose it).

The Wyoming barrister has declined to comment extensively to New Times,saying recently, "I do not want the judge in Rodney's case to conclude that I took the case for publicity or for any other reason than the justice of the case. I am profoundly against the death penalty."

Spence was appalled that Maricopa County prosecutors were seeking a death sentence against Rodney, despite his serious mental illness and profound underlying learning disabilities. Without fanfare, he attended several hearings at the downtown Phoenix courthouse over a two-year period as Rodney's criminal case inched along.

Spence's unexpected involvement was another turn in a case that has had more legal zigzags than a motocross course. One came earlier this year, when prosecutors abruptly decided against seeking the death penalty against Rodney.

But Rodney Aviles still faces two first-degree murder charges, even though experts on both sides agree he's currently incompetent to stand trial because of his chronic mental illness.

The criminal courts can't seem to figure out what to do with Rodney.

Judge Warren Granville has yet to decide if Rodney may be mentally "restorable" to competency through treatment and medication. To be deemed competent, Rodney will have to be able to understand the legal proceedings against him and to assist in his own defense -- and that hasn't happened, according to mental-health reports obtained by New Times.

Like other jurists in similar shoes, the respected Granville has been relying on the "experts" to try to get at the young man's mental state, both now and when he committed the murders.

If Granville does decide Rodney is restorable and, later, that he's been returned to legal competency, Rodney still may be tried for murder. Once already, in 2001, another judge concluded that Rodney was restored. But the young man apparently deteriorated again mentally -- if he truly had been restored -- and his case returned to legal limbo.

But if Granville rules Rodney never will be competent to stand trial, he'll likely send him to the Arizona State Hospital. There, Rodney likely would spend his remaining days, a fate far more acceptable to his family than a cell at the state prison in Florence.

However, Mauricia Aviles' children know too well that there are no guarantees in this life. Once, her kids saw her as an indestructible spirit, an unstoppable force. Then, one June night, Mauricia's youngest child slaughtered her and her dear granddaughter.


A devout Catholic, Mauricia Aviles' life revolved around her six children, and they reciprocated in kind.

Her husband Jesus returned to Mexico in the early 1980s, leaving her to finish raising the kids at the family home on West Tierra Buena -- which sits in a comfortable subdivision of one-acre horse properties called Sunburst Farms. The size of the lot afforded Mauricia room to grow her pomegranate trees, and to let the family's Great Danes run free.

An earlier tragedy struck the family in the late 1970s, when the oldest sibling, Ralph, died in a car wreck. That drew his brothers and sisters even closer to their mother.

"Each sibling needed my mom," her daughter Anita Watson later told a lawyer in the civil case against Maricopa County. "She was like the center of everything. We were all very close to her."

They also were close with each other. Things, however, always were different with Rodney.

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