Death by Screw-Up
The man charged with the brutal murder last spring of a twenty-year-old woman was mistakenly released from jail only three days before the murder because of a flagrant error by Maricopa County prosecutors, New Times has learned.
No one in the County Attorney's Office is contesting that "The Screw-up," as everyone seems to call it, cost Shandora Johnson-Morrow her life.
The suspect, convicted child abuser Clinton Spencer, has pleaded innocent to charges that he kidnaped her from a Tempe convenience market on the night of May 19, stabbed her to death, set her body on fire in the desert outside Buckeye and sold her car the next day to undercover Phoenix police.
County Attorney Rick Romley says: "The girl didn't have to die."
Spencer, 31, had been in jail for alleged probation violations--some of them violent and some of them technical--when rookie prosecutor Randy Redpath of the County Attorney's Office surprisingly asked a judge on May 17 to dismiss the case.
Incredibly, this request came after an attorney representing Spencer asked the judge only for a postponement of the probation revocation hearing. Such postponements are the norm in Superior Court, and Spencer was prepared to continue to sit in jail. But when Judge Gloria Ybarra granted the state's request, he was freed.
County Attorney Rick Romley blames one of his veteran prosecutors, Jim Braden, for "The Screw-up." Braden, who resigned last month under pressure from Romley, blames "the system"--an overall breakdown in the County Attorney's Office. He accuses Romley of a personal vendetta and of making him a "scapegoat." Romley aide Myrna Parker conducted a month-long probe of The Screw-up, which concluded that Braden was solely responsible. A copy of Parker's report was obtained by New Times after whispers of The Screw-up started circulating outside the courthouse.
"Nothing could be worse than what happened--nothing," Romley tells New Times. "It's a prosecutor's nightmare. . . . It's more than negligence on the part of the prosecutor who screwed this up--it was willful. It was his wrongdoing, but it's my office, and I'm ultimately responsible."
Romley vehemently denies a "vendetta" against Braden. "All I'm trying to do," says Romley, "is to try to improve the professionalism of our office. Braden simply didn't meet those standards."
Braden faults the county attorney's system of assigning and monitoring cases. "These people are sitting there with a system that's designed to fail," says Braden's lawyer, Stan Lubin, "and when it did, they looked for a scapegoat. Rick Romley had a hard-on for Jim Braden for a long time before this, and he made Jim his scapegoat."
Braden tells New Times that he can't specify anything that he did wrong that day in May. "I didn't tell Randy to dismiss it," he says. "I just told him that if the defense wanted to proceed, we weren't ready. On Monday, I got a call from the probation officer, who says, `Why did you dismiss this case?' I said I didn't know what had happened. He tells me, `This guy got out and killed someone.' I thought, `Jesus Christ! This is the one thing in the world you don't want to have happen--and it happened.'"
The case does reveal the inherent danger in the "warm body" system that prevails in the busy offices of Maricopa County's prosecutors and public defenders. In this system, lawyers assigned to cases commonly get their associates--they use the term "warm bodies"--to stand in for them during routine court appearances in ongoing cases. Sometimes, warm bodies stand in for warm bodies.
Lubin also blames that system, saying, "The stakes here are so high, but professionals make mistakes, and when they do, someone has to be able to fix the mistake before a catastrophe occurs. If Jim was screwing up--if--and they had had a system in place, they would have caught it. You've got a county attorney in Rick Romley who is trying to make political hay out of supposedly cleaning the office up, when in fact he and his people are dumping on selected parties for their own inadequacies."
However, according to a sworn affidavit by chief deputy prosecutor Jim Keppel, Braden was contrite during a July interview by Keppel and Paul Ahler--Romley's trial bureau chief who discovered The Screw-up earlier that month.
"I asked him [Braden] what his initial reaction was to the information [about Spencer's arrest for murder]," Keppel's affidavit says. "He stated, `I fucked up.' I asked him how he `fucked up,' and he stated that he had not checked the court file to determine whether there were any technical violations alleged in the petition to revoke probation."
Braden tells New Times, "Keppel took a lot of things out of context. My thinking was from the standpoint `we or I screwed up' . . . . At that time, I wasn't sure what really happened. I wasn't sure about the technical [violations] at that point."
LAST MONTH, ROMLEY and his aides told the family of Shandora Johnson-Morrow about The Screw-up.
"It never, never, never, never should have happened," says Shandora's aunt, Joy Law, a Phoenix schoolteacher who raised Shandora from the age of eleven after her mother was murdered in New Mexico.
"I'm satisfied that Mr. Romley is being open about this. He told us that a bad mistake had been made, and that this man shouldn't have been back on the street. Paul Ahler, the man who is prosecuting Spencer, had tears in his eyes as they were telling us. But there's nothing they or anybody can do to bring Shandora back. Nothing's going to bring her back."
All the fingerpointing in the County Attorney's Office does nothing to raise the spirits of Ken Johnson, who was Shandora's brother, closest friend and surrogate father.
"A tragedy is a tragedy," Ken Johnson says. "When somebody lets somebody out of jail and a tragedy occurs, it's unforgivable, okay? That sums it up in a nutshell, doesn't it?"
CLINTON SPENCER, on probation for felony child abuse, was in Maricopa County Jail last spring awaiting court action on an alleged crime spree. He was suspected of armed robbery, car theft and the beating of a robbery victim with a metal pipe.
A hearing on whether his probation would be revoked was conducted May 17 before Superior Court Judge Gloria Ybarra. A two-page transcript describes what happened in Ybarra's courtroom:
Assistant public defender Wes Peterson--acting as "warm body" for colleague Nora Greer--asks the judge to postpone the hearing. He also mentions that Greer had subpoenaed the Phoenix cops investigating the robberies, because she hadn't received the police reports on the incidents.
Rookie prosecutor Randy Redpath--the "warm body" for the County Attorney's Office, responds, "I don't have a file. I wasn't aware it was on the calendar this morning."
Ybarra notes that the court's written entry for the hearing had wrongly set the date for June 17, a Saturday. However, she adds, "The date was set correctly in the courtroom [during Spencer's arraignment] so whoever was here should have taken that date down for violation hearing today."
Ybarra then instructs Redpath to find out which prosecutor is responsible for the case.
The court takes a recess. Upon his return, Redpath has just one thing to say on the record.
"At this time," he tells Ybarra, "the state would move to dismiss the petition for violation."
"All right," the judge responds. "There will be an order dismissing on Mr. Spencer today."
Mitch Altschuler, the probation officer who had wanted Spencer's probation revoked, wasn't in the courtroom. Assuming that the hearing had been postponed, he called Ybarra's office later that day to get the date of Spencer's rescheduled hearing. Altschuler, who knew Spencer better than anyone else in the justice system and wanted to keep him locked up, learned only then that Spencer was back on the street. Three days later, Shandora Johnson-Morrow was murdered. The County Attorney's Office says Clinton Spencer did it.
"I had a prosecutor in court who looked bewildered," Judge Ybarra, a much-praised jurist who is a finalist for the current opening on the federal bench, tells New Times, "and I gave him time to find out what was happening. He came back into court with what he came back with. You can't force the county attorney to put on a case. I've agonized over this--I can't tell you how much. I've spoken with my husband--`What could I have done?' God, I feel so badly for that girl's family."
CLINTON SPENCER had already served prison time in Mississippi for forgery when he migrated to Arizona in the mid-Eighties. In May 1987, Spencer married Cathleen Jackson and they settled in Glendale. Only a few months later, Glendale police suspected Spencer of punching his six-year-old stepdaughter in the eye with a closed fist. Charges weren't pursued, however, and Spencer continued working at a furniture warehouse in Phoenix.
In March 1988, however, Glendale police again investigated Spencer for child abuse after a school nurse noticed deep, swollen bruises on the little girl's buttocks. The girl told authorities that Spencer and her mom had taken her to the desert after she misbehaved, bound her hands and feet and beaten her repeatedly with a sandal.
At separate hearings, Cathleen Jackson and Clinton Spencer pleaded no contest to child-abuse charges that could have brought a maximum prison term of just less than two years. In August 1988, after plea bargaining, Judge Gloria Ybarra placed Spencer on three years' probation--and no jail time. The judge also ordered Spencer to perform 100 hours of community-service work.
According to Spencer's probation officer, Mitch Altschuler, Spencer did reasonably well during the first seven months or so of his probation. He hadn't done any community service work as ordered, and he'd had several unspecified "domestic altercations" with his estranged wife. But Altschuler didn't want to ask a judge to revoke Spencer's probation on that alone.
In early April 1989, however, Spencer lost his $5.50-an-hour warehouse job. On April 15, a man was spotted by a security guard at Park Central Mall, on the second floor of the parking garage. The man was holding a chrome pipe in his hands but made no threatening moves with it. It was also discovered, however, that he had two cocaine-smoking pipes with white residue in the bowl.
The guard called the Phoenix cops, who arrested the man, later identified as Spencer, on a charge of possessing drug paraphernalia. However, the police released Spencer a few hours later without notifying probation officer Altschuler.
The next day, according to court records, Spencer got into another man's car on East McDowell Road and started fondling him. As the other man leaned back in his seat, Spencer punched him numerous times, until the man fled. Spencer and Joseph Morago, a local homosexual hustler with a criminal record, then allegedly sold the car to two undercover Phoenix cops for $180. However, the cops were conducting a sting operation and didn't arrest Spencer and Morago at the time. The cops didn't know at the time how Spencer had allegedly obtained the car.
Early on the morning of April 17, according to police reports, Spencer allegedly beat a Phoenix man with a metal pipe, and he and Morago stole the man's car. Again, the pair approached the undercover cops and sold them the victim's car, credit cards and checkbook for $400.
Later that day, the Phoenix cops arrested and jailed Spencer and Morago.
When Mitch Altschuler found out that Spencer was being accused of a crime spree, he immediately issued a "probation hold," which kept Spencer behind bars without bail.
On April 19, Altschuler filed a court petition to revoke Spencer's probation. In the petition, Altschuler listed the alleged robberies, the alleged possession of drug paraphernalia and his association with Morago--a person with a criminal record. All would be in violation of Spencer's August 1988 probation. Altschuler also listed two technical violations: Spencer's failures to do community service work and make regular payments to the county's Victim Compensation Fund.
It promised to be a fairly routine case. Clinton Spencer seemed likely to have his probation revoked, even if only one of the charges stuck.
"After the homicide," Jim Braden later told Romley's investigators, "I think it's very easy to look at this as a more serious case than what it was viewed as when we were looking at it at that time . . . There was nothing that made me think he was an unusually dangerous man during the handling of that case, up to the violation hearing."
BRADEN WAS ASSIGNED the Spencer case by his supervisor, Steve Windtberg, on April 26. Braden had been with the office for sixteen years, and his last evaluation by Windtberg generally had been excellent, including the written comment, "Jim knows his way around the courtroom and seems to enjoy the legal battles."
But there was a political history between Braden and Rick Romley, the deputy county attorney who was elected last year by voters to succeed Tom Collins. A few years ago, Romley took over from Braden as chief of the office's Family Support unit. Romley publicly berated Braden's performance in collecting child-support payments. The unit was viewed by most as an office disaster area.
The two weren't on friendly terms after that, but career prosecutor Braden didn't quit after Romley took over.
Braden remembers getting the Spencer file sometime in late April. That file included Altschuler's petition to revoke probation, which listed each of the allegations against Spencer. Spencer appeared for arraignment on April 28 in Judge Ybarra's court--a warm body filled in for Braden--and a May 17 probation violation hearing was set.
Actually, the judge's clerk erroneously listed the hearing on a court document as June 17, but that was a Saturday, and all the people crucial to the case but Braden--that includes the judge, the defense lawyer, and the probation officer--now say they knew the violation hearing was slated for May 17.
Spencer's attorney at the time, deputy public defender Nora Greer, had indicated that she planned to have a stand-in ask the judge to postpone the May 17 hearing for a few weeks because she'd be on vacation.
Still, Mitch Altschuler says he spoke with Braden about Clinton Spencer a few times in early May. Braden recalls those conversations.
"The discussion involved whether or not I had filed new charges against Spencer [for the alleged armed robberies with Morago]," Braden recalls. "I remember explaining that we did not have Spencer identified. And I remember that Mitch told me, `Oh, yes, we did, he is identified.' I told him, `Listen, it does not say that in my report.'"
But Altschuler's handwritten records from May indicate that it was Braden who told him on May 12--five days before the hearing--that Spencer had been identified as a suspect in one of the robberies.
Braden contends that he was unaware that Altschuler also had filed the "technical" probation violations against Spencer. Even those violations could have caused the court to revoke Spencer's probation, even if each of the robbery-related crimes somehow didn't hold up.
However, Altschuler's field reports, compiled before the Spencer affair blew up in everyone's faces, indicate that he specifically spoke with Braden about the "technicals" on May 4--thirteen days before the hearing.
Altschuler's records also say that he contacted assistant public defender Wes Peterson a few days before Spencer's still-scheduled May 17 violation hearing--just to make sure Peterson, subbing for Greer, was planning to ask for a postponement. Both Altschuler and Peterson later told Romley's investigators that that had been the game plan.
But Altschuler didn't stop there. His records show he tried in vain several times to contact Braden, just to make sure he wouldn't have to attend the hearing. Braden didn't return his calls. Braden says he never got the messages.
WHY DID PROSECUTOR Randy Redpath ask for a dismissal on May 17?
Redpath claimed in a July interview with a county attorney's investigator that Jim Braden came down to Ybarra's court during the recess and requested to him "that the case be dismissed, as he [Braden] was not prepared, and no witnesses were present to testify on the matter."
Braden told the internal investigators that he had gone to Ybarra's court that morning--even though he says he couldn't find the file--because a phone message from Mitch Altschuler had alerted him that something was going on.
Braden also told Romley's investigators, according to the report, that he had a short conversation with assistant public defender Wes Peterson outside Ybarra's courtroom: "I have the distinct recollection that Wes kind of grinned and said, `Well, maybe we won't continue it [the hearing].' I told Randy, `We're not ready to proceed on this case today, we can't go on it, there's no way . . . If they're not going to agree to the continuance, and if we have to, we just have to dismiss it.'"
However, Wes Peterson insisted to investigators that he never even hinted to Braden that he planned to go forward with the hearing that day. After all, Peterson was just the public defender's "warm body" on the Spencer case.
SHANDORA JOHNSON-MORROW actually saw her mother murdered by an ex-boyfriend in 1979. After that, she grew up in Phoenix under the wing of her aunt Joy--she'd call her "Auntie Mom"--and older brother Ken Johnson.
By the time she graduated from Mesa Westwood High in 1986, Shandora already had a job as a beautician at a local salon. Popular, attractive and respected in high school, Shandora was one of three student speakers at her graduation.
"I dedicate this speech to my mom, who wasn't able to attend tonight," she told her fellow students. "I want to speak to you about judging people too soon, too harshly, and wrong."
Shandora's family says she lived her life that way, that she was an optimistic person with a winning smile, always willing to give someone the benefit of the doubt. She started night school at Mesa Community College while maintaining her full-time job. A short-lived marriage to a high-school sweetheart was ending in divorce, and Shandora moved back in with Auntie Mom.
No one is sure exactly how Shandora crossed paths with Clinton Spencer on the evening of May 19. Police reports say she may have offered Spencer a ride at a Circle K in Tempe. Her family says she's the type of person who would trust strangers.
A female friend of Shandora's later told investigators that she had seen a man approach Shandora at the Circle K. Shandora had followed the friend to the store in a different car and told her she was giving the guy a lift.
Soon after that, the friend and Shandora met at a nightclub only a few blocks from the Circle K. Later that evening, a man--subsequently identified in a police line-up as Spencer--was seen sitting on the hood of Shandora's car outside the nightclub.
Several hours later, a Buckeye resident called authorities to say he had spotted a fire in the desert. Police identified Shandora's charred body through dental records.
She had been stabbed twice in the back, and DNA testing now is being done to determine if the semen found in her body was Spencer's.
Spencer is accused of selling Shandora's car to undercover police officers on May 21. He was arrested that day. At the time of his arrest, according to police, he was trying to borrow money from one of the undercover cops so he could leave for California.
ON MAY 23, probation officer Mitch Altschuler refiled his probation revocation petition against Clinton Spencer. About the only difference between the April 19 petition that prosecutors asked to be dropped and the new one was the allegation that Spencer kidnaped and murdered Shandora Johnson-Morrow.
It took more than five weeks after Spencer's arrest on murder charges before the County Attorney's Office officially started investigating The Screw-up.
In the meantime, ironically, Jim Braden successfully had secured grand jury indictments against Spencer in those April armed robberies and trafficking cases.
In late July, Judge Ybarra sentenced Spencer to the maximum term of almost two years in prison for violating his probation in the child-abuse case.
Soon after prosecutor Paul Ahler took the Spencer murder case, he says, he noticed a glitch. "Anyone would want to know why the first probation violation had been dismissed," Ahler says.
Jim Braden was put on administrative leave with pay while the investigation took shape.
On August 3, Romley formally wrote Braden "to notify you in advance of my decision to terminate you from your position with the County Attorney's Office." Romley's letter also said, in part: "You have carelessly and negligently ignored your duties to this office, to the criminal justice system, and to the public. Your mishandling of this case is reprehensible, entirely unacceptable, and fails to meet even minimal standards of conduct for this office." Braden says he considered fighting the matter, but on August 10, he quit, writing Romley, "It is obvious that I have been made a scapegoat of the system in order to satisfy your political needs . . . . I have no desire to engage in a long, drawn-out process which would accomplish nothing other than further lower the public's opinion of the workings of your office."
Ahler says, "I can buy that we don't have a perfect system, and that there can be a breakdown in communication from prosecutor to prosecutor. But Mr. Braden physically was there at Judge Ybarra's courtroom. The dismissal of the revocation is what this screw-up is, and it was his screw-up."
SHANDORA JOHNSON-MORROW and her brother Ken Johnson had exchanged notes and poems for years, and earlier this year, she wrote him this:
"Black as the sky before dawn, as sometimes is life before death, unto every life, blackness must sometimes fall. But happiness . . . to live life in sunshine, is but one dream of us all. There are those who are blessed to have sunshine in their smiles. The kind of smile that brightens the dimmest of days. So I give to you each day, a smile for every black thought you may have.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Phoenix, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.