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Death Sentence

He doesn?t look like a menace to society, does he?
photo courtesy of Lucy Cisneros

Life was pretty good for Phil Cisneros until his wife, Lucy, got sick.

After that, as one of his daughters teased him, he might as well as have been Job. First, there was the Alzheimer's that afflicted Lucy. Then came Cisneros' trouble with alcohol — and the law. Then his health problems, one after another.

For 40 years, Cisneros worked as a heavy-equipment operator in the copper mines outside Globe. He was a family man, a big-hearted guy who taught his five kids and a bevy of nephews fishing and woodworking. In time, he administered those same lessons to his 15 grandkids.

Lucy's illness changed everything.

"He took care of her as best he could," recalls Phil Cisneros Jr. "It took a toll on him and the entire family." When Phil Sr. was finally forced to place Lucy in a nursing home, he took a handyman job at the home to be close to her — she would eat only if he was feeding her.

It was a difficult time, a time that would drive many men to drink. Cisneros was one of them. He'd never been a teetotaler; prosecutors say he'd been busted for DUI in 1980. But with his wife's health declining, a one-time problem became a frightening pattern. Cisneros got popped for no fewer than four DUIs from 1989 to 1992, barely getting out of jail for one before he was charged with the next.

Lucy died in 1993. Five years later, Cisneros was arrested for drunken driving one more time. He was 75.

It is, indeed, a terrible track record. But then something happened. Cisneros stopped drinking and driving — and, for that matter, stopped driving at all, according to his neighbors and family. He met another woman (coincidentally, another Lucy), fell in love, and got married again.

No one disputes that Phil Cisneros has been a model citizen for the past nine years. He hasn't had so much as a parking ticket.

And that's why his family was so shocked when their patriarch was thrown in prison this spring and sentenced to three years for, again, drunken driving.

This one, however, wasn't a new violation. It turns out he'd never cleaned up that last offense from nine years ago. And neither the prosecutor nor the judge was in the mood to give him a break.

Cisneros is 83. He suffers from prostate cancer, diabetes, pulmonary hypertension, sleep apnea, shingles, dizziness, and shortness of breath. He's had double-bypass surgery. He's extremely hard of hearing. And then there's the emotional stress he's under — his beloved wife, the second Lucy Cisneros, has recently been diagnosed with lung cancer and is undergoing chemotherapy.

To a guy in this condition, three years in prison is a death sentence.


Today, Phil Cisneros is locked up with the general prison population in Florence. No Paris Hilton-style medical reprieve for him. No assignment to a special senior citizens wing. (Did you know there is no such thing? I didn't.) In fact, for a time, Cisneros appears to have been assigned to sleep outside in a tent, in the 100-degree heat.

His lawyer, Jason Squires, tells me that in the two months he's been locked up, Cisneros has been hospitalized twice. Squires estimates that it's going to cost taxpayers close to $65,000 in medical bills for every year Cisneros manages to survive in prison.

"I've done thousands of cases, and this is the most bizarre I've ever seen," Squires says.

Here's what happened. Earlier this year, Cisneros needed new dentures. Lucy thought nothing of driving him across the Mexican border to have the work done. They're not a wealthy couple; the work is cheaper there.

But when they returned to the U.S. after the second appointment, the guards stopped Cisneros. That's when Lucy, who's been married to him for nine years this month, found out there was a warrant out for Cisneros for a felony DUI from 1998.

Cisneros had been arrested for rolling through a stop sign on his way home from the bar nine years ago. He'd already done a few months in prison for a previous drunken-driving offense. But when it came time for his new trial, he simply never showed up.

Thanks to a weird quirk in Arizona law, the trial was held anyway. Gila County tried Cisneros "in absentia," and — without him there to present a defense — the jury voted, in 18 minutes, to convict.

The conviction sat there, until Cisneros made the fateful decision to get those dentures.

Gila County Attorney Daisy Flores believes the old man made a conscious attempt to skip out and avoid punishment. But Cisneros' family is convinced that he was a confused senior citizen who didn't understand what was going on.  

They claim they didn't know that he was facing more trouble, much less that he failed to show up for his trial.

And though Flores seems sincere, I have to side with the family on this one. Globe has a population of fewer than 8,000 residents. Even though Cisneros moved away a few years after his second marriage, he wasn't exactly hard to find. Several of his kids still lived in town. One daughter was living in the old family home. When Cisneros bought a house in Maricopa, both he and his wife put their names on the deed — hardly the mark of a guy who knew he was on the lam.

Even more striking is this: After the move, says Lucy Cisneros, the couple continued to drive back into Globe to see their doctor.

"Everyone knew him," says Phil Jr. "And he was sitting there eating in restaurants where the police officers hung out."

"His daughter Tammy cut the hair of half the police officers in town," Lucy adds. "None of them ever said, 'Hey, have your dad turn himself in.' Not once."

But when it was time for Phil Cisneros to be sentenced last month, Gila County Judge Robert Duber didn't see a confused old man who hadn't driven, much less driven drunk, for nine years.

He saw a repeat offender — and a fugitive.

The family assembled 65 letters from friends and relatives, begging for leniency. But Judge Duber didn't see family members who loved him. As he told them at the sentencing hearing, he saw instead 65 co-conspirators who had helped to hide him.

Duber tells me he doesn't remember saying that, but doesn't dispute it — and acknowledges that he may well have felt that way. Although he can't talk about the specifics of the case, he's unfazed by the details of the old man's illness. "The entire jail system is full of people who have very bad health problems," he says.

And Flores, the county attorney, notes that Cisneros could have faced up to 10 years. It's only because her office agreed to "forgive" one of Cisneros' prior convictions that three years' time was even within the judge's range of sentencing options.

Mandatory sentencing laws then put the lowest possibility at 2 1/4 years in prison — although Squires notes that the judge could have paroled the old man immediately. Flores also could have chosen to "forgive" the other prior, he says.

The county attorney doesn't have any regrets on that front.

"When I looked at these three prior felony DUIs, I saw a person who has not gotten a clue that they shouldn't be out driving," Flores says. "Plus, he took off for eight and a half years. I don't feel any pity for him."

I do. And it's not just because Cisneros is in poor health.

He has followed the law and stayed off the road for nine years. If the point of the law is to rehabilitate nonviolent offenders and keep the streets safe, we're already there.

Of course, here in Arizona, we want to throw the book at everyone — never mind if they actually harmed anyone or not. After all, even in his period of really dangerous behavior, Phil Cisneros avoided hitting so much as a streetlight, much less a living thing.

We're still determined to be tough.

"This is part of the reason we have the highest rate of incarceration in the West," says Caroline Isaacs, program director for the Arizona office of the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker-based group that's advocated for sentencing reform. "We're concerned about crime, sure. But we let that concern spill over into a desire for revenge."

Isaacs can point to plenty of other states, including Texas — yes, string-'em-up Texas — that offer early release to prisoners in really bad health or in unusually tough circumstances. Not Arizona.

Phil Cisneros didn't stand a chance.

Lucy Cisneros is trying to come to terms with that. Her husband has written her plaintive letters, wondering when she's going to get him out. She hates not having a happy answer.

"I can deal with the cancer," she tells me, referencing her chemotherapy. "I just don't want to deal with it without him. You think you're together for the rest of your life, that you can handle things together, and then this happens."

I can understand why the "system" might think justice has been served in this case. The guy is a repeat offender, and we don't want people skipping out before trial, whether consciously or carelessly.

But when I think of an 83-year-old grandfather who could very well die behind bars, I can't help but think that we need a little less justice and little more mercy.


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