HE SHALL OVERCOME
There should never have been a doubt.
Those two Smitty's supermarket workers who allegedly strangled Ric Rankins last July deserve to stand trial for manslaughter.
At first I was appalled by the mishandling of the case by County Attorney Richard Romley. His cynical excuse for avoiding the controversial case was an obvious subterfuge. Romley's weak alibi was that too many of his own employees work part-time for Smitty's.
It didn't take much brain power to ask Romley the next question.
If it was a conflict of interest to take on a case in which a man has been slain in full view of witnesses, how can Romley's bad-check posse gallop in to prosecute every bad-check charge the Smitty's chain complains about?
Romley, who has never experienced real pressure before, apparently thought the case would fade away.
The moment I heard the case had been handed over to the Coconino County attorney, I sensed Romley's plan was in trouble.
They have a tiny staff up in Flagstaff and the man most likely to be tapped for the assignment to try the preliminary hearing was Fred Newton.
Newton is a singular trial lawyer. He has all the courtroom skills to be one of the foremost criminal attorneys in the country.
He works in Flagstaff only because he loves the outdoors and does not have a burning desire to make big money. He is six feet seven inches tall and lives in a mountain cabin. His idea of a night on the town is a few beers and a steak dinner.
Newton worked in the Maricopa County Attorney's Office for years. He was, even then, the best litigator in the major felony unit. No one remembers that he ever lost a case.
One of the highest-paid lawyers on the county payroll, he took a large cut in pay simply because he wanted to live where he was close to the woods and the hiking paths he loves to explore.
When Newton's name came up in the Smitty's case, I asked him what he thought his chances were of succeeding in getting the case to trial.
As usual, he minimized his chances.
"Not much jury appeal," he said. "But I'll work on it. We'll see if we can find some new witnesses." You would have had to bet against Newton's chances at that point.
First of all, Rankins was a black man with a criminal record and was a reputed drug addict.
Second, the two defendants from Smitty's, Marvin Davis, 34, and Michael Torres, 27, would be accompanied to court by two of the city's slickest defense lawyers.
William Friedl and Jeremy Toles come straight out of the BMW/Rolex watch/Phoenix Country Club branch of criminal-defense work. They dress in expensive clothes and are well known by all sitting judges. Whenever they walk into the court, their clients' chances improve.
"I'm going up against a couple of the best lawyers in town," Newton said. "It's going to be tough." But I remembered a case which Newton handled several years ago in which he had even less chance for jury appeal.
A seventy-year-old man was sitting in a bar on Seventh Street when he was attacked by a much younger man. The attacker was a known troublemaker and the older man tried to avoid trouble, knowing that he was no match physically for the aggressor.
The old man's story was that he fled the bar and went to his car to escape. He was followed, and his attacker tried to pull him from the car to beat him up in the parking lot outside the bar.
In the scuffle, the seventy-year-old pulled a gun from his glove compartment and killed his attacker. It was Newton's judgment that he had lured the victim to the car where he could shoot him.
Newton tried the case. He convinced the jury that no one has a right to take another man's life. The seventy-year-old man, who had no previous criminal record and was fully employed as a typewriter repairer, was sent to the Arizona State Prison in Florence.
I watched much of that trial.
If it had been tried in the mad-dog, self-righteous manner in which most of the major felony cases are prosecuted by the County Attorney's Office, I'm certain that the old man would have been acquitted.
But Newton, moving slowly about the courtroom with his basketball player's height was an impressive sight. He doesn't shout. He doesn't attempt to bully witnesses. You can compare him to the young Abe Lincoln or Gregory Peck playing Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird.
Newton never alienates anyone. His approach is solid and reasonable. His courtroom performance becomes a totally convincing whole.
When I went down to Florence to visit the man Newton convicted, there was no anger expressed against the prosecutor. He was merely seen as a man who had done his job.
So I can see why Judge Peter D'Angelo ruled that the two Smitty's employees should stand trial for manslaughter.
"They killed a man with their bare hands," Newton told the judge. "They should be held to answer for this." The defense attorneys protested. They urged the judge to set the lesser charge of negligent homicide.
"Mr. Newton," Judge D'Angelo asked, "What do you think of their offer?" "Not much, Judge," Newton said.
For weeks, the Reverend Oscar Tillman of the NAACP had been complaining that Rankins' death was being passed over because he was a black man.
Tillman said that it was only the arrival of Newton that had saved the case from being whitewashed by Romley's office.
Now, the case will get a legitimate trial.
No one remembers the last time Newton has failed to get a conviction.
He doesn't picture himself as an avenging angel. But everyone interested in this terrible Smitty's incident can be certain Newton will come into court with a determination to prevail.
It was only the arrival of Fred Newton that saved the Ric Rankins case from being whitewashed by Romley's office.
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