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Scales of Injustice

Friends maintain this shrine to Keith Underhill, who was killed by an off-duty Mesa officer.
Robert Nelson

Hangin' County Attorney Rick Romley has a message to any citizen who gets behind the wheel of a vehicle:

If you accidentally injure someone, you'll do hard time.

If you accidentally injure a cop, you'll do double hard time.

If you recklessly injure someone and you are a cop, chill bro', you won't be given a hard time.

Romley's bluff-on-crime campaign reached new lows two weeks ago with the sentencing of Rogelio Gutierrez, the Hispanic cabbie who, during an epileptic seizure, slammed his cab into the Ford Crown Victoria squad car of Phoenix officer Jason Schechterle.

Schechterle, as you know because he gets more media face time than Joumana Kidd, was badly disfigured in the ensuing fire, a fire that probably wouldn't have happened if Ford properly designed the gas tanks on its full-sized car bombs.

Gutierrez had taken his epilepsy medicine. It was his first seizure in a year.

But the accident mangled a cop. Big media event. That meant an extremely aggressive prosecution that resulted in a 12-year sentence, with no parole for at least 10 years.

Over in Mesa, DPS officer Christopher Valdez killed 25-year-old ASU student Evan Shelley after officer Valdez failed to heed orders to break off a high-speed chase.

In April, DPS' Valdez was sentenced to six months in jail.

"I don't think this is justice at all," says Mary Shelley, Evan's mother.

There's more.

Out in Gilbert, Keith Underhill was hit on his skateboard in 2000 by an off-duty Mesa officer who had been drinking. Underhill's high school buddies still wonder why charges weren't filed against the officer who killed their friend.

Less than a mile from that fatal accident scene lives Josh Mazion, who, at age 18, hit some ruts on a country road and rolled his Honda Civic while driving buddies to a favorite drinking spot. Mazion wasn't legally drunk that evening in 2000. His buddies had asked him to drive. They all had been drinking beer.

One of Mazion's buddies wasn't wearing a seat belt and was paralyzed after being ejected from the car.

In their final plea offer, Romley's attorneys said they will not accept Mazion spending any less than seven and a half years in prison for the accident. Mazion goes to trial next month for aggravated assault of his paralyzed buddy.

"I'm still in absolute shock," says Terry Mazion-Winter, Josh's mother, who has already put a second mortgage on her house to shield her son from Romley's pit bulls. "He did something wrong, no doubt. But my God. They want him to spend his college years and more in prison for this. And my greatest fear is that I really don't believe he would survive it."

Let's recap:

Hispanic father accidentally runs into cop's easily exploding vehicle. Hispanic father deserves 12 years.

Teen rolls vehicle on bad road while chauffeuring a drinking buddy who didn't strap his seat belt. Teen deserves seven years.

Drinking off-duty cop runs over skateboarder. Cop deserves no sentence.

Cop disobeys orders and kills a college student. Cop gets six months.

"The Vehicular Crimes Division of the County Attorney's Office are known by the defense attorney community to be wildly Draconian in going after people," says Jeffrey Mehrens, who defended Gutierrez to stunningly little avail. "Then you look at this compared to the DPS officer in Tempe, and it just seems wildly disparate. My guy is hung out to dry while that DPS officer gets easy time."

Bill Fitzgerald, spokesman for the County Attorney's Office, disagrees.

"You're comparing apples and oranges with these cases," Fitzgerald says.

"Rogelio Gutierrez had three prior collisions in which he had seizures," Fitzgerald adds. "Then he lied (to the Arizona Motor Vehicles Division) that he had no prior medical condition. We feel very comfortable that Rogelio made decisions that caused this to happen."

The fact that Gutierrez was on new medication that he'd taken faithfully for 18 months prior to the accident — a period during which he had no seizures — was beside the point for county prosecutors.

Regarding the DPS officer:

"Besides his sentence, he has lost his career," Fitzgerald says. "It's unfair to say he got off easy."

Fitzgerald would not comment on Josh Mazion's case because it is ongoing.

In the context of Arizona's present prison-space crisis, Romley's selective blood lust, which aggravated that space crisis in the first place, seems even more absurd.

Indeed, it is very likely that a couple of murderers, bank robbers or rapists will have to be released early to make room in our overcrowded, underfunded prisons for Romley's epileptic cabbie and teen party chauffeur.

What is badly needed here is some sense of perspective and equality.

I have sympathy for the officers' stories. The off-duty cop who killed Underhill in Gilbert wasn't legally intoxicated. The accident took place in a dark, confusing stretch of road construction near Warner and Val Vista.

It was an accident.

Christopher Valdez was in the heat of a high-speed chase. He was trying to catch a bad guy. He made a critical error in a split-second decision that cost a young man his life.

Six months seems appropriate.

However, if fair is fair in Rick Romley's county, both officers deserve more prison time than Rogelio Gutierrez and Josh Mazion.

It's time for Romley to even up his scales of justice regarding injury accidents. To do so, he needs to show the same jurist prudence toward average people like Rogelio Gutierrez and Josh Mazion as he does toward the Valley's cops.


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