The Spike is thrilled to report that famed Wyoming attorney Gerry Spence has signed on to work his formidable legal magic for a Phoenix man charged with killing his mother and 7-year-old niece. The Spike spotted Spence in town for a July 1 hearing before Superior Court Judge Warren Granville, during which he announced his intention to work with assistant public defender Vikki Liles in representing Rodney Aviles on the first-degree murder charges.
Now 24, Aviles was arrested in June 1999, less than a day after he allegedly bludgeoned the mom and niece to death inside their west Phoenix home. The murders happened less than six hours after Aviles had been released from the psychiatric ward of the Maricopa Medical Center.
Prosecutors have said they plan to seek the death penalty at Aviles' trial, which now is scheduled to start November 4. But the case has stalled several times in the four years since the murders, as mental-health experts have debated if Aviles is legally competent to stand trial (they now say he is).
No one is saying much about Spence's involvement in the case. "The less I say, the better it will be for my client," he tells New Times.
But Jackson Hole's most renowned barrister apparently heard about Aviles while teaching at a seminar attended by defense attorney Liles.
Sources at the courthouse say Spence will be doing the case pro bono. But it's not as if the 74-year-old attorney -- familiar to millions for his fringed suede jackets and cowboy hats -- needs the money.
Spence's own, rather elaborate Web site, gerryspence.com, points out that he first gained national attention by winning a $10.5 million verdict against an Oklahoma chemical and energy corporation in the Karen Silkwood case. He won a $26.5 million verdict against Penthouse for an aggrieved Miss Wyoming, and a $52 million verdict against McDonald's on behalf of a small ice-cream company.
Spence also won a criminal acquittal in 1990 for former Philippine First Lady Imelda Marcos on RICO charges, and later successfully defended Wyoming anti-government radical Randy Weaver on murder, assault, conspiracy and gun charges.
Spence's Web site claims he hasn't lost a civil case since 1969, and hasn't ever lost a criminal case. But The Spike fears his remarkably unblemished criminal record will be tested in the Aviles case, a tragedy that had its roots in the Mexican native's well-documented mental illness.
Police reports and other records indicate authorities approved Aviles' release from the county's psychiatric ward on June 23, 1999, after the young man's mother and sister said they'd "overreacted" 10 days earlier in requesting a court-ordered mental evaluation. In their earlier request, the family members had alleged Aviles had been threatening them and others with a knife.
Dr. Carla Denham, who agreed to release Aviles back to his family, noted in a discharge document that her patient still was acutely psychotic, and was suffering cocaine-induced delusions. However, she said that Aviles' supposed support system -- "Family, home and employment" -- was a positive.
Aviles told a nurse shortly before leaving the psych ward that morning, "I'm just thinking about what to do to make things better between me and my family."
After dinner that evening at the family home, Aviles' brother and sister-in-law went to a nearby Circle K, leaving him there with 59-year-old Mauricia Aviles (his mother) and 7-year-old Alexia Aviles (his niece). When the couple returned about 45 minutes later, Mauricia and Alexia were dead on the living room floor, victims of devastating blunt-force injuries to their heads.
The killer had wrapped the bodies in blankets, and placed a family photo and statues of the Virgin Mary and an angel nearby. Rodney Aviles was missing when his brother and sister-in-law returned to find the carnage. He was arrested the following day in a field outside Gila Bend after his mother's car broke down. Aviles apparently didn't confess to the crime during a police interrogation, but records show he did tell a detective that his mother and young niece were evil.
Several family members later civilly sued Maricopa County, Med-Pro of Arizona -- a privately owned health-care service that employs Dr. Denham -- and the doctor herself. The lawsuit alleged that Aviles shouldn't have been released so prematurely from the psych ward.
The Spike hears that Dr. Denham and Med-Pro recently reached an out-of-court settlement with the Avileses for an unspecified sum.
The Paper Chase
Elsewhere on the legal scene, The Spike was scratching its pointy little head over what appears to be heavy-handed legal maneuvering in a civil lawsuit involving John and Heather Grossman, an estranged Paradise Valley couple whose deteriorating relationship was chronicled in May in a cover story by New Times staff writer Amy Silverman.
"Paralyzed in Paradise" told the tale from Heather's perspective (John refused to be interviewed) of the quadriplegic woman -- paralyzed from the neck down -- who contends John seriously abused her for months while she was helpless to respond. Heather says John spit in her face, slapped her, withheld water and medicine, and threatened her children, among other things.
John Grossman, through his attorney, says Heather is giving false information to the police and the public.
The Paradise Valley police, after a lengthy investigation and a detailed report that ran more than 1,000 pages, asked the Maricopa County Attorney to prosecute. That agency so far has declined to press charges.
Heather's story drew an outpouring of sympathy from New Times readers, many of whom wrote letters to the paper. Over the next few weeks, New Times published more than a dozen letters, some from former nurses and acquaintances who corroborated Heather's allegations, some from readers who were appalled that Heather's husband seemed to be getting off the prosecutorial hook. The Spike hears that many readers also wrote directly to County Attorney Rick Romley urging that he take up the case.
Now, it seems John Grossman has orchestrated a letter-writing campaign of his own -- to the same people who wrote letters to New Times. Many of those who wrote in have received a letter from John's attorney putting them on notice that "based upon specific comments made by you in the Phoenix New Times" the law firm believes the letter-writers may have information relevant to the civil lawsuit between the Grossmans. The lawyer letter warns them not to destroy any "evidence" they may have.
The Spike can see how a former caregiver might have something of relevance to the case lying around. But readers who wrote in to comment on Heather's plight? Come on.
Bob McKirgan, John Grossman's attorney who signed the letters, contends people who wrote letters to the editor may now be witnesses. John's side believes that Heather and her family contacted people and asked them to write letters to the paper as well as the county attorney in an attempt to pressure John into giving her more money in the divorce case. McKirgan says Heather has made "an effort to keep this in the news and get money out of John wrongfully."
"We have not threatened to sue these people. They are just essentially a witness," McKirgan says.
But Heather's father, Ralph Stephens, who along with her mother has moved to Phoenix to help his daughter, has plenty to say. He calls the letters blatant intimidation.
"It's BS," he says. "They're trying to continue Heather's torture, that's exactly what they're doing."
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