Death-Penalty Lawyers Are Making a Killing Off Maricopa Taxpayers
In early December 2010, Phoenix criminal-defense attorney Nathaniel Carr III submitted an invoice for payment to Maricopa County in the death-penalty case of Israel Naranjo.
The invoice included a notation for November 17, 2010:
"Florence interviews Willie and Adolph. We got trouble."
Carr was referring to interviews with Naranjo's two incarcerated half-brothers at the state prison in the central Arizona town. He billed the county for eight hours of work that day, which may have included travel time.
As Naranjo's lead lawyer, Carr was paid $125 an hour by Maricopa County. He is one of a group of private attorneys who hold contracts with the county to represent indigent clients in murder cases that the Public Defender agencies can't handle for one reason or another.
The eight hours on November 17 equated to $1,000 for Carr. Add to that invoices for work he said he had done in the days preceding to prepare for the prison interviews. (Carr also billed the county three hours that day in two other cases.)
"Going to see Israel's brothers on the 17th, trying to prep as much as possible," Carr wrote in his November 14 entry for 2.5 hours ($312.50).
In a November 16 invoice, Carr charged another four hours ($500) for more "preparation," and mentioned his client's imprisoned half-brother Adolph Perales.
"Adolph, he is the guy for us," Carr typed into his bill, which read (like dozens of his invoices) more like a personal journal entry than a formal request for payment from a government agency.
"Carries a lot of baggage, but is HUGE for us in mitigation."
Naranjo was facing death row in the March 2007 stabbing death in Phoenix of his pregnant 38-year-old girlfriend, Delia Rivera. Evidence of his guilt included the victim's three children as eyewitnesses and a confession. Carr and his defense team had to try to persuade jurors to spare their client's life after they inevitably convicted him of murder.
Perhaps Naranjo's imprisoned half-siblings might provide compelling evidence about his particularly difficult childhood.
Carr's next billing entry was for the November 17 "we got trouble" interviews at the prison with Perales and Willie Torres, the other half-brother.
Carr sent over his November 2010 billings, as usual, to James Logan, director of Maricopa County's Office of Public Defender Services. Among many other duties, Logan is responsible for approving payments to the private criminal-defense attorneys under contract with the county.
Carr signed his name to his request for payment just above a sentence that said in part, "I do solemnly swear that the accompanying statement is a just statement of account against Maricopa County; that the work and labor specified herein have been performed."
In other words, Carr was avowing that he had done all of the work he claimed.
Without comment, Logan approved the month's billings in Naranjo, $11,985 for 102 hours of work, just as he had literally hundreds of times in Carr's murder cases since becoming his agency's director in 2007.
But Nate Carr was lying about going to Florence for those November 17, 2010 interviews.
He wasn't at the state prison that day, and he never spoke with Israel Naranjo's half-brothers.
Carr's co-counsel in Naranjo was Taylor Fox, a Phoenix attorney paid $95 an hour by the county as "second chair" in the case.
Fox also submitted an invoice to Jim Logan for November 17, 2010, saying he, too, had interviewed the half-brothers that day in Florence. For his efforts that day, Fox charged 6.8 hours (compared with Carr's eight-hour bill).
Fox was asked why both he and Carr had gone to Florence, after New Times obtained their separate billing records through a public-records request. The question seemed to stop the attorney short.
"Both of us didn't interview those guys," Fox said, after glancing at Carr's November 17 invoice, which he said he previously hadn't seen. "This is totally false, a bald-faced lie. I was down there. I spoke with those guys. Nate didn't. This is some serious lying here."
Nate Carr did not respond to repeated e-mails, phone calls, and a hand-delivered letter seeking comment.
But a representative for the Arizona Department of Corrections told New Times that Carr didn't visit with the half-brothers on November 17, 2010 — or ever. The spokesman, Bill Lamoreaux, did confirm that Taylor Fox met with Adolph Perales on that date, though he said he couldn't find a visitation record that day with the other half-brother, Willie Torres.
Fox said he took notes during his interviews with Perales and Torres, and then drafted a memo about his findings dated December 2, 2010, which he sent to Carr and Johnson.
Torres confirmed to New Times that he did meet with "a white lawyer" for his brother.
Fox is white.
Carr is African-American.
Nate Carr remains the king of Maricopa County's contract criminal-defense attorneys when it comes to collecting money, even though he hasn't been assigned a new capital case since 2009.
As of June 21, according to a county spreadsheet, Carr had been paid $2.4 million since the start of 2006 for representing accused murderers.
That amounts to about $370,000 per year, a sum that compares favorably to the $123,000 that County Attorney Bill Montgomery earns yearly, the $100,000 that deputy county attorney Eric Basta (chief prosecutor in Naranjo) makes, and the $145,000 that Judge Roland Steinle (who presided at Naranjo's trial) is paid.
Jim Logan of the Office of Public Defender Services makes $164,000 a year.
President Barack Obama is paid $400,000 annually, but he has perks that Carr doesn't.
Close behind Carr is Phoenix attorney Roderick Carter, paid $2.2 million over the same 5 1/2-year stretch, much of it for work as second chair in the extended trial last year of Mark "Baseline Killer" Goudeau.
Carter collected $494,000 from Maricopa County in 2011.
Randy Craig sits third on the money list, at $1.8 million.
As with Carter, much of that sum was from his representation of Goudeau, who now sits on death row.
The $1,800 that Maricopa County paid Carr for his duplicitous "prison interview" invoices is a fraction of the $453,000 he collected in Naranjo over a four-year period that ended with the killer's May 2011 death sentence.
(Taylor Fox made $138,000 in Naranjo as co-counsel, and Stephen Johnson — another key player in this story — billed $98,000 as the defense team's "mitigation specialist," a position that doesn't require a law license.)
On top of Carr's falsified invoices, an examination of invoices submitted by both him and Johnson in Naranjo and other cases over the past half-decade show that both men padded billings as they collected thousands of dollars from Maricopa County every month.
The Naranjo billings reveal that the pair billed for dozens of "team meetings" with Taylor Fox — 58 in Johnson's case and 38 in Carr's — that Fox never submitted invoices for and says he never attended.
"If I attended a team meeting, I would have wanted to get paid for it," Fox said. "If I wasn't there, I wasn't there, and I wouldn't say I was. I don't over-bill or under-bill."
It gets worse.
A review of more than 64 invoices submitted separately for payment by Fox and Carr for work they allegedly did complete together (these so-called "team meetings," court hearings and one-on-one discussions) reveals this:
On average, Nate Carr billed almost three times more hours than co-counsel Fox for identical services supposedly rendered.
Here's a comparison of some billings that the pair submitted separately in early 2011 during jury selection in the Naranjo trial:
• February 21: Carr lists a 6 1/2-hour "team meeting," and Fox bills that same day for a two-hour "team meeting."
• February 23: Carr bills 12 hours and Fox bills 7.2 hours.
• March 2: Carr bills 9.5 hours for "preparing" an expert witness for testimony. Fox charges 3.5 hours for preparing the same witness.
• March 16: Carr bills for a 14-hour day. Fox bills 3.3 hours.
Such was the norm throughout the Naranjo case, month after month, year after year.
Carr and Fox had other murder clients at the same time and were billing in those cases as well. So was mitigation specialist Steve Johnson, who was reinstated as an attorney in late 2007 — several months after his appointment in Naranjo — after a suspension that lasted four years.
Carr and Johnson appear to have added hours to their invoices whenever they wanted. Perhaps they were emboldened knowing that Jim Logan, the county's gatekeeper of the contract private attorneys, approved whatever amounts they asked for (with one exception regarding Carr).
"My job is to look at every invoice that comes into this office, and I do that," Logan told New Times.
"But I don't think it's fair to expect me to know every last thing, true or not, that may be occurring with every lawyer. No one, including Taylor Fox, alerted me to anything negative about Mr. Carr or Mr. Johnson."
NBA Preseason Basketball: Phoenix Suns v. San Antonio Spurs
TicketsMon., Oct. 3, 7:00pm
NBA Preseason Basketball: Phoenix Suns v. Utah Jazz
TicketsWed., Oct. 5, 7:00pm
Arizona Coyotes vs. San Jose Sharks
TicketsFri., Oct. 7, 7:00pm
TicketsSat., Oct. 8, 7:00pm
Fox confirmed that he didn't speak to Logan about the two men, despite problems he said he had with their work ethic in Naranjo, or what he suggested was the lack of a work ethic. He said he hasn't spoken with either Carr or Johnson about the case since Israel Naranjo was sentenced to death May 12, 2011.
"I don't know what I would say to him that would be productive," Fox said.
Logan is correct that it would have taken major sleuthing by him to have unearthed Carr's falsified 2010 prison interviews billings.
But this question lingers:
How was it that the reputedly hyper-vigilant Logan and his in-house auditor didn't ever suspect wrongdoing over Nate Carr's multitude of steep invoices?
Logan did catch an improper billing by Carr once, in February 2009, when he declined to pay Carr for 14 hours of "work" after the attorney charged the county $1,750 for "scanning documents" in another murder case.
"Scanning is clerical work not to be paid," Logan scribbled on a Carr invoice.
Logan told New Times that he never noticed other charges for "scanning" on Carr's billings before then and didn't look at the invoices retroactively after that.
He should have.
Carr's paperwork shows he billed Maricopa County more than $5,000 for "scanning" in the Naranjo case alone, and almost $20,000 overall in more than 50 invoices over a three-year period before Logan happened to notice.
"Scanning day," he wrote on a June 2008 bill for 3.5 hours, or $437. "Putting it on flash drive takes quite a bit of time."
Carr claimed on July 4 that year to have spent three hours at the printer: "Love scanning on holidays — the best!"
Later in 2008, Carr expressed frustration on his invoice after an apparent 2.5-hour attempt to scan in yet more documents: "Tried to scan into flash drive — Houston, we have a problem!"
Bills submitted to public agencies are public record, but Carr oddly chose a stream-of-consciousness approach in many invoices, even when referring to his own death-penalty-eligible clients.
"He just snuck up and blasted her in the head," he wrote of his client Larry Gary, now serving a life sentence for murdering his Phoenix girlfriend in November 2007. "I don't think she ever saw it coming. So he blows his girlfriend of five years' head off. Not good."
In a February 2009 invoice for four hours, Carr wrote: "Heavy work. We are getting down to the nitty-gritty. I think we are good, but it's dirty Basta and not-so-smart Steinle."
This would be Naranjo prosecutor Eric Basta and Judge Roland Steinle.
The following month, Carr said this about Dr. Brad Bayless, a prosecution expert witness in Naranjo: "Lots of impeachment material — he's the state's whore."
He charged the county three hours, or $375, to come up with that observation.
After interviewing a pair of Phoenix homicide cops in August 2010, Carr wrote, "Those two make me dislike cops even more. They are so full of garbage. I will destroy them on the stand."
Finally, this one from June 2009, an invoice for what Carr claimed was three hours of video-watching: "Looking at new video of our client from the past. He looks like a killer, not a retard."
The latter reference is to the fact that Naranjo is mentally handicapped.
Jim Logan said he never advised Carr to tone down his commentary on official county paperwork.
"It was very weird, but I never said a word to him about it," Logan said. "Why should I have?"
Maricopa County's lucrative criminal-defense niche began to explode in 2005, within months after Andrew Thomas became county attorney.
Death-penalty filings increased exponentially during Thomas' controversial reign, which ended when he resigned in 2010 to unsuccessfully run for Arizona attorney general.
By 2008, Maricopa County had become the nation's unofficial capital-punishment capital, with about 150 death-penalty cases pending — up by two-thirds from three years earlier. It didn't help that the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Ring v. Arizona mandated retrials for several convicted murderers (now they would be sentenced by juries, not judges).
Death-penalty cases are among the most expensive, time-consuming, and rigorous in the justice system. One reason is that most murder defendants are unable to afford lawyers, and the courts must appoint counsel to represent them — at great cost to taxpayers.
In Maricopa County, defense attorneys appointed to murder cases usually come from one of three Public Defender agencies. The country also contracts with private lawyers to take on cases with several defendants, who may be pointing fingers at each other and legally cannot have attorneys from the same agency representing them.
Jim Keppel, the county's presiding criminal judge during the height of the courthouse crisis regarding death-penalty cases, says there just weren't enough judges, prosecutors, and qualified defense attorneys to handle the load during the unprecedented blitz of capital filings under Thomas, who since has been disbarred. (Pending death-eligible cases have shrunk from the peak of about 150 to about 65 since Thomas' departure.)
Maricopa County tried at the time to lure more private attorneys into the death-penalty-defense fold by increasing the hourly rate for first-chair lawyers to $125 an hour and second-chair attorneys to $95 an hour. Mitigation specialists — who are similar to private investigators, but whose sole task it is to find reasons for jurors to possibly spare guilty clients — got bumped up to $55 an hour.
Twice-suspended attorney Stephen Johnson, still months away from getting his law license back, made his reentry in early 2007 as a death-penalty mitigation specialist.
Since then, Johnson has become the Zelig of Maricopa County's criminal-justice system.
In part, his ubiquitous presence is testament to how desperate county officials were during the Andrew Thomas era to lure practically anyone to work on the rash of capital cases that emerged.
Johnson has collected more than $1 million from Maricopa County since 2007 as either a co-counsel and mitigation specialist in a series of murder cases. That's about $200,000 a year, not bad for a fellow so down on his luck a decade ago that he moved back in with his parents.
A bear of a man, Johnson is known around the courthouse as gregarious and likable. But he long has taken on (and authorities have allowed him to take on) more clients and cases than he can handle. As a result, he inevitably has gotten in trouble with the State Bar of Arizona.
The Arizona Supreme Court suspended Johnson for the second time in May 2004, more than a year after he admitted lying to the state Court of Appeals about why he hadn't submitted legal paperwork on time for an incarcerated client.
More than a dozen people had filed complaints against Johnson before the suspension, claiming he ignored their cases after collecting fees.
"It is apparent that Mr. Johnson's only concern is to receive whatever amount of money he receives with as little or no work as possible," the parents of one of Johnson's incarcerated clients wrote in 2002.
"Mr. Johnson believes he is above and beyond the law."
Johnson's 2004 suspension was for six months and one day — the extra day signifying the formal proceedings he would have to undergo to be reinstated.
He didn't win reinstatement until November 2007. But, meanwhile, he found good-paying jobs ($55 an hour) as a mitigation specialist for Nate Carr in Naranjo and for Randall Craig in the sprawling Mark "Baseline Killer" Goudeau case.
To be appointed in a capital case, rules of the Arizona Supreme Court say, a defense attorney must "be a member in good standing of the State Bar of Arizona for at least five years preceding the appointment" and "have practiced in the area of state criminal litigation for three years preceding the appointment."
Steve Johnson was able to bypass these rules because, without comment, the Supreme Court in January 2008 granted his petition and allowed his appointment as a second-chair attorney in trial and appellate proceedings. (Last September, the court granted another Johnson petition, this one to allow him to be lead counsel in death-penalty cases.)
"It's up to the first chairs who they want as co-counsel or as mitigation specialists," said Jim Logan of the county's Office of Public Defender Services. "I did mention Mr. Johnson's recent history to Mr. Carr and to others at one point or another, and they seemed okay with it."
Among his new cases after his reinstatement as a lawyer, Johnson became co-counsel to Randy Craig in the capital case of Donald Delahanty, accused of killing Phoenix police officer David Uribe during a routine traffic stop on West Cactus Road in May 2005.
Many criminal defendants are prone to whining about their attorneys when things go poorly.
But the several recent clients who have protested to judges and to the State Bar about Johnson sound eerily similar to those of a decade or so ago, when he lost his livelihood for years.
A year ago, the Bar issued a formal reprimand against Johnson after a convicted inmate complained, with good reason, that the attorney — his court-appointed appellate advocate — had not responded to his repeated phone calls and a letter. The reprimand was a hard slap on the wrist, one step short of yet another suspension.
Another complainant was Mexican national Fidel Godinez-Garcia, one of eight men charged in May 2008 in the Phoenix murder of a suspected high-level human-smuggling boss. Court records show that Jim Logan appointed Johnson in late 2008 to replace Nate Carr as lead attorney in the non-capital case.
Godinez-Garcia wrote to the Bar in early July 2010 that his trial supposedly was on the horizon, yet he hadn't spoken with Johnson for months.
This, by the way, should have surprised no one, given the workload that court officials had allowed Johnson to assume. Legitimate mitigation work in Naranjo and Goudeau alone would have been more than enough for most people.
But Johnson also was lead lawyer in one first-degree non-capital murder case and co-counsel in at least three others.
Godinez-Garcia, who doesn't speak English, claimed that Johnson (who doesn't speak Spanish) had showed up for a rare jailhouse visit without an interpreter.
"That just goes to show that he is not taking me serious," Godinez-Garcia said. "My case is very important to me and my family, and I need a lawyer that will take me serious." (Another inmate translated into English what Godinez-Garcia said for the handwritten missive.)
But Johnson remained on the defendant's case until early this year, when another private attorney on the county's contract list replaced him.
Daniel Garcia-Saenz is another murder defendant who expressed serious dissatisfaction with Steve Johnson in writing. He also is a Mexican national and remains accused with three other defendants in the 2008 drug-related home-invasion murder of a West Phoenix man. Actually, the accused man wanted both lead attorney Carr and co-counsel Johnson off his case.
In late 2009, Garcia-Saenz informed trial judge Michael Kemp that his attorneys weren't paying any attention to his case.
"There is no way I could ever trust such dishonest and incompetent attorneys," the defendant wrote. "They have repeatedly told me they would visit and would bring information to me to review and then broke those promises. This is the same type of dishonesty they have demonstrated for a year and continue to do so in my case."
Judges usually pay little heed to such grievances, not wanting indigent clients to engage in lawyer-hopping as trial dates near.
But Kemp, a former county and federal prosecutor, was concerned enough to hold a hearing in December 2009 on the issue. According to a court transcript, the judge asked Nate Carr how many interviews he had conducted in the case during the year and a half he had been on it.
None, Carr replied, suggesting he simply followed the lead of other attorneys in the multi-defendant case.
Carr actually agreed with Garcia-Saenz about the lack of mutual trust between the attorneys and their client.
Kemp allowed Carr and co-counsel Johnson to withdraw, without sanction. More than three years later, Garcia-Saenz still is awaiting resolution of his case.
Jim Logan approved all of Carr and Johnson's bills in the case, almost $100,000 for Carr and $40,000 for Johnson.
Looking over the pair's invoices in Garcia-Saenz, it appears that both men were hard at work as the case edged forward. But court files show that they filed just four minimal legal motions between them during their year and a half on board and, as Carr admitted, had completed no interviews.
In May 2009, Nate Carr claimed to have worked 28 of 31 days (including each Sunday in that span) on Garcia-Saenz, including six meetings with co-counsel Johnson.
"Discussion with team about this god-awful mess," Carr wrote on an invoice that month in which he asked for and got $7,300 from the county.
In September 2009, Carr billed the county $8,250 after supposedly working every day that month — including Labor Day — on the Garcia-Saenz case.
He charged two hours on September 29 for what he called "media review," noting on the invoice, "Found some new old articles, kinda an oxymoron." That would be $150 for reading brief news stories about the home-invasion killing.
Carr also billed 61 hours in the Naranjo case ($7,625), saying he had worked on it for all but four days that month. He also was paid for another alleged 159 hours of work on behalf of other murder clients, for another $14,000.
On Friday, September 17, he billed 10 hours for work on various cases, including Daniel Garcia-Saenz's ("Research-witness questions") and Israel Naranjo's ("Had to listen to confession — not good.")
What makes that date noteworthy is that the Glendale Mountain Ridge High School football team traveled to Chandler late that afternoon for a game against powerful Hamilton.
From 2006 through the end of last season, Carr served as offensive coordinator for Ridge, a time-consuming passion of his from the late summer into December. People at the county courthouse who know the onetime University of Arizona football walk-on tell New Times that coaching seems Carr's true passion.
To put in 10 hours of work that September 17 would have been a tall order for Nate Carr, who often was unavailable to clients and co-counsel on most weekday afternoons during football season — and always on game days.
"He was really into his coaching," says Taylor Fox, Carr's co-counsel in the Naranjo case. "I don't think he missed too many practices, and he never was around on Fridays if he could help it."
Pat Gitre, a Phoenix attorney who worked on Garcia-Saenz on behalf of the Mexican consulate (because of the defendant's nationality), said this when asked about the work of Carr and Johnson in that case:
"Death-penalty work is a lifestyle choice and has to be a passion. If you hop on the money train, don't give a rat's ass about the consequences, and you can get away with it, that's on you. Your client may end up dying, but what the hell."
Jim Logan tried cases as a public defender for years, earning the respect of judges and opposing prosecutors along the way.
These days, as the director of the Office of Public Defender Services, he is a bureaucrat in a rigorous job, part of which is to try to save the county money while overseeing the appointment of supposedly qualified attorneys to represent death-eligible clients.
Logan said at the onset of last week's sometimes-contentious interview with New Times that he suspected a "hit piece" against him was in the works.
"I am very aware that some guys have billed for a lot of money," Logan said shortly after the interview began, "but I have not seen what I would call overly excessive invoices under the circumstances."
He continued, "The buck does stop with me, and I take that responsibility very seriously. When I see discrepancies or I suspect that someone has been overcharging or not billing accurately, I act on it. I have docked people on the contract, more than once. I have stopped assigning people to cases, including Nate Carr — and that was four years ago — just because I thought it was the right thing to do at the time."
At first, Logan hinted at a possible "he said/he said" personality conflict between the defense attorneys in the Naranjo case. But he quickly changed his mind after learning from New Times about Nate Carr's false avowals in the November 2010 "prison interviews" billings, for which the attorney collected almost $2,000.
"That would be serious business, fraudulent," Logan said tersely.
At that point, Maricopa County spokeswoman Cari Gerchick spoke up for the first time late in the interview.
"If we determined that these allegations merit a criminal investigation, we will refer this to the County Attorney's Office," Gerchick said.
For now, Nate Carr and Steve Johnson continue to do fine, money-wise.
Maricopa County paid Carr $125,000 for the first half of this year. Still, this puts him on track for his least lucrative year since 2005, about $250,000 if the second half is about the same as the first.
Steve Johnson collected $133,000 for the first six months of this year.
Last week, when New Times contacted Taylor Fox with follow-up questions, he expressed concern about the rumors he had been hearing about his role in this story.
He said friends in the criminal-defense community have told him that Nate Carr has been trying to sell the "he said/he said" riff that Jim Logan retreated from during his interview.
The circumspect Fox concluded by saying:
"I have thought hard about this, and I'll just say it. If you would ask me if I felt that Nate and Steve's lack of real work on the Naranjo case could have affected the outcome of our client going to death row, my answer would be yes, it could have. There is something fundamentally wrong that happened here — on many levels."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.