We first heard about the Lisa Randall case about six months before we broke the story of her unfortunate prosecution here in "Phantom Murder," published last July.It took awhile to wrap our head around the unusually tragic and complex facts that had landed the Peoria grandmother and veteran day-care operator in jail awaiting trial on the worst death-penalty rap imaginable--killing a 4-month-old baby boy whose mother had dropped her off before going to work.
Eventually, though, we came to the surprising (to us) conclusion that the case against Randall, which then-Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas had trumpeted as yet another example of his being "tough" on crime, was a dog, a rush to judgment, a miscarriage of justice.
We also became convinced after looking at all the evidence and speaking to experts in the field of child abuse that officials, including Peoria police detectives, county prosecutors and the doctor who performed the autopsy, were wrong--that the death of little Dillon Uutela hadn't been a murder at all.
Randall, now 50, spent about seven months behind bars during her three-year ordeal, and was under house arrest until Judge Michael Kemp tossed out the case last July.
Just days before trial, prosecutors had asked Judge Kemp to dismiss the case against Randall, which he did in such a way that it cannot be refiled. A happy ending for the Valley native and her family.
Here's the rub:
It probably wouldn't have happened had not then-County Attorney Andrew Thomas resigned to run for Arizona Attorney General (he lost in the primary) in the spring of 2010.
With Rick Romley temporarily running the office, a team of senior prosecutors reexamined the Randall case, and unanimously concluded that any likelihood of a conviction was scant.
Those opinions were forged after an expert witness hired by the prosecution to analyze the evidence concluded that no crime, much less a homicide, had been committed.
"I cannot support the cause of death as being blunt-force trauma of the head and neck," wrote Dr. Cliff Nelson--a medical examiner for the state of Oregon--to the prosecution team. "Not only is the conclusion unsupported, I feel most of the observations of that conclusion are in error."
Dr. Kevin Horn, a county medical medical examiner, had determined that Dillon's death was a "homicide," citing typical signs of blunt-force child abuse such as bleeding in the baby's eyes and brain, and a tiny crack in his skull.
But Dr. Nelson concluded that "at this point the cause of death remains undetermined...I have had other cases thought [by pediatricians] to be deaths due to inflicted head trauma by which after complete death investigation proved the result of a SIDS-like event."
In other word, little Dillon Uutela's death will remain a mystery.
It comes as no surprise to us that Lisa Randall has filed a $12.6 million claim seeking damages against Maricopa County and the City of Peoria--specifically naming Andrew Thomas, Sheriff Joe Arpaio and several other individuals.
But lawsuits such as hers usually are uphill struggles: Public officials, including prosecutors, medical examiners and cops do make mistakes like the rest of us, and honest mistakes rarely translate into money-making civil judgments for those who have been wronged.
But we gotta tell ya:
The lives of Lisa Randall and her family will never be the same as the result of what happened to her in Maricopa County's criminal-justice system, and that is the truth.