Arizona's sentencing laws are so tough that a woman recently served two years in prison for her first DUI because of a previous conviction for possession of marijuana.
The disturbing news can be found in a May 23 article by a journalism student about the need for smarter sentencing guidelines in Arizona. The story was first published by Arizona State University's Cronkite News Service, then picked up by numerous news sites around the state.
Trouble is, the article doesn't reveal the whole truth about the ex-con, Candita Gottsponer. As it turns out, she's not a good example for the article's thesis.
Skeptical of the claim, New Times backgrounded the woman's criminal history and found it was much more extensive than the article described.
But what really bugs us is not that reporter Rebekah Zemansky (who just graduated) did not write her story as we might have. It's that her editor, Associated Press veteran Steve Elliott, and the editors of news sites across the state, failed to realize the absurdity of the sentencing tale. It appears that many newspapers published the story on their websites without questioning it.
The lengthy article, entitled, "More conservatives joining push to change sentencing guidelines," begins like this:
PHOENIX -- Even with a record for marijuana possession, Candita Gottsponer didn't expect to go to prison for her first DUI. But a state law toughening penalties for repeat offenders left the judge with no other option.
She served 23 months at the Arizona State Prison Complex-Perryville.
That info's repeated in the caption beneath Gottsponer's photo. The article doesn't expound further on the reason for Gottsponer's incarceration.
A check of the state Department of Corrections websurte shows that she wasn't merely sentenced for a first-time DUI based on a single pot conviction. She was sentenced for a 2009 aggravated DUI conviction, a 2003 conviction for possession of "dangerous drugs" (not marijuana), and a 2004 conviction for first-degree failure to appear.
Under the "parole classification" heading, it looks like Gottsponer was sent to prison for a while in 1998, too, though the site doesn't state why.
Court records show a long history of legal problems. Yes, she was convicted of pot possession in 1999. But that's been the least of her worries. Gottsponer was:
* Convicted of theft of $1,000-$2,000 in 1997. She'd been charged at the time with both theft and fraudulent use of a credit card.
* Convicted of possessing dangerous drugs in July 1997. The plea deal dropped additional counts of pot possession and drug paraphrenalia.
* Convicted of providing liquor to a minor in 2002.
* Convicted in April 2009 for possession of dangerous drugs and failure to appear (probably for the above-mentioned 2003 and 2004 violations.) The plea deal in the case dropped additional charges, including pot and paraphrenalia possession and two counts of the involvement or use of a minor in drug offenses.
* Charged in June 2009 with aggravated DUI (passenger under 15 years old), misconduct with weapons and false reporting. That DUI is probably the one mentioned in Zemansky's article.
It's difficult to piece together what happened in 2009 based on documents available online. But we're not convinced the judge had no options.
Gottsponer was sentenced to 2 1/2 years, but was released after 23 months, the DOC site shows.
Zemansky declined to comment when we reached her last night.
Cronkite News Service Editor Steve Elliott called us from the road today, saying he wasn't able at that time to verify what we told him about Gottsponer's history but will double-check everything when he gets back from his trip.
"If something's wrong in the story, we'll correct that," Elliott says.
That's not going to be an easy correction to write, from what we can tell.
Interestingly, Elliott mentioned that Zemansky "looked through [ottsponer's] priors" while reporting the story. If so, we can't figure out why the story didn't mention the priors.
Zemansky's article ran far and wide. A Google search shows it was re-published on the sites of the East Valley Tribune, Arizona Daily Sun, Ahwatukee Foothills News, Arizona Capitol Times, Daily News-Sun, Tucson Sentinel, USA Today, and lots of blogs.
Arizona's already America's whipping post because of its right-wing politics -- no further embellishment is needed. We can only assume that when editors of these news sites saw the Cronkite story's headline, which backhandedly criticized conservatives, their brains went to mush.
The Cronkite News Service feeds the declining newspaper industry with free content. Receiving editors seemed to believe that the content in question fit the "Arizona's whacked" narrative. That's assuming the editors looked at the story at all. Some sites may have picked it up automatically.
But a student news service is not the professionally staffed Associated Press. As newspapers and websites rely more on students to fill in where laid-off journalists cannot, they'll need readers like us -- and you -- to help with the learning curve.
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UPDATE: Cronkite News Service publishes a correction on the article.