Travesty of Justice
The Spike was intrigued by the fancy media kit that landed on several desks here last week. More interesting was the fact that it came from the Office of the Federal Public Defender's Capital Habeas Unit (that's the death penalty appeals folks for you non-legal types), an agency that labors in obscurity most of the time.
But The Spike was most surprised to find that the kit and cover letter had actually been prepared and mailed by Athia Hardt, a veteran spinmeister whose public relations firm specializes in media consulting. Wow, The Spike wondered, how much of the taxpayers' hard-earned moolah went to this effort?
No one will say. Which, in The Spike's experience, usually means it's probably a scandalous amount.
The hoopla is over the case of death row inmate Warren Summerlin, who has been in prison since his conviction on first-degree murder and sexual assault charges in 1982. Summerlin's story is a crazy one in itself. He raped and killed a bill collector who came to his house trying to get money for a piano he had purchased. His mother-in-law, claiming to have a psychic vision, ratted him out to the cops, who found the woman's body wrapped in a bedspread in the trunk of his car.
And then the case really got weird. Summerlin's first defense attorney had a sexual affair with the prosecutor in the case, which resulted in his defense being turned over to another attorney who didn't do such a great job. The judge who sentenced Summerlin to death was later disbarred for smoking pot, including during the time period he had the Summerlin case before him. What a mess.
Summerlin's break may have come last year when the U.S. Supreme Court, ruling in the case of another convicted murderer, Timothy Ring, decreed that juries, not judges, must impose death penalties. The Ring decision covered Ring and others sentenced by judges after him; Summerlin and 87 other death row denizens in Arizona were sentenced before him.
The federal PD argued successfully before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals that the decision should also apply retroactively to prior sentencings. The Ninth Circuit agreed and the state has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review the decision, which it has agreed to do on April 19.
Not too hard for us lay folk to grasp. But Dale Baich, the assistant federal PD who runs the Phoenix office, and Athia Hardt tell The Spike that the issues are so complicated and they've been so swamped with media requests about the case that they decided to put together the media kit -- which includes legal summaries, briefs, photos of the attorney who will argue the case, photos of Summerlin and a handy CD-ROM with all of the above. There's also a press briefing on Friday, April 9, in case reporters didn't quite understand the packet or, better yet, need a sound bite or photo op.
The Spike has no problem with lawyers trying their cases in the press, and in fact encourages such behavior. Private law firms with 16 floors of attorneys occasionally indulge in media kits on behalf of their (presumably) paying clients. But The Spike can testify that it is highly unusual to get this kind of packet from a public legal entity (i.e., the Attorney General, the County Attorney, the County Public Defender). And certainly never, ever from the always beleaguered federal Public Defender.
And the cost to the public? Who is, after all, the paying client in this case:
"I'm not telling," Baich says. "We don't disclose the strategy of our case. We never talk about how much we spend on experts. We have an attorney-client relationship."
Hardt also won't say. And Baich's boss, Dave Shannon in the federal PD's Tucson office, didn't even know what The Spike was talking about.
The Spike noted that legal expenditures by public agencies are usually a matter of public record. Baich suggested The Spike file a Freedom of Information Act request and see what happens.
Stay tuned for an accounting -- in about two years.
The Big Sequel
As reported in last week's New Times, recently dethroned KFNX 1100 news director Tom Avila, alias Tom Simon, is a convicted felon who obtained the news director post at the fledgling AM station despite a history of criminal charges -- including a fairly recent 14 counts of forgery.
In the story, by staff writer Susy Buchanan, Avila fessed up about his life of crime but adamantly insisted that his life as a journalist is sterling. "I've never been accused, in my entire life, of not following ethical boundaries as it relates to journalism," he told Buchanan.
Now, The Spike would beg to differ.
It turns out that Avila used his position as a newscaster to trash his wife's ex-husband, labeling the man a deadbeat dad and casting him in the starring role of a weeklong series on men who don't pay their child support and abandon their children.
In the journalistic world, that's called a conflict of interest and is a sin greater than, say, bank fraud or assault on a police officer, both of which Avila has been in trouble for. You don't use your position as a reporter for personal gain or to get back at someone you don't like.
Avila believes the ex is responsible for bringing his criminal background to light. (Buchanan, who does have journalistic principles, isn't blabbing about her original source for the Avila piece, which was based on Avila's extensive court files.)
However, in interviews with New Times, Avila repeatedly blamed his current troubles on the former husband, who he suspects dropped a dime on him through an anonymous e-mail.
"I'd like to take this to the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and have a debate as to whether this is a story or not," Avila told Buchanan, "whether it's right for a news division to allow somebody with an ulterior motive to destroy somebody's life. It isn't right for us as journalists to be sent on attack missions, whether we view it as such or not."
The Spike couldn't agree more. Too bad Avila was talking about the other guy trying to do it to him. Mostly, he was trying to convince Buchanan that his own story (which includes two decades of arrests and incarcerations on charges ranging from assault to bank fraud and grand theft) was not a story at all. (The Spike would note the obvious here: that an extensive criminal background subverts the credibility of someone in the news business.)
Avila resigned as news director after talking to Buchanan, and was made an executive producer at the station.
Still, The Spike couldn't help but continue to shake its pointy little head when it tuned in to the morning news hour last week for, as Avila likes to call his shtick, The Big Story. In a story written by Avila but read on air by another reporter, Bob Baker, Avila claimed his nemesis was remiss on thousands of dollars in child support, hadn't paid taxes in a decade and is wanted on a warrant for a traffic violation.
The "special assignment" segment identified the deadbeat dad only as Alan David "last name withheld." KFNX labeled Alan David a "con man" who works "odd jobs." KFNX claims the man has not paid child support in 10 years, and that both the Sheriff's Office and the Department of Economic Security were wrapping up an investigation that would soon land this scofflaw in court.
Although Avila didn't use the guy's last name, he shared details regarding the man's profession, the location of his home, the ages of his children and even where his girlfriend works, making him easily identifiable. At least Alan David thinks so and is now threatening legal action against the station.
Station manager Mike Barna confirms that Avila was responsible for writing the copy Baker read on the air, and Barna maintains he was completely "unaware, I had no clue" that Avila was using the airwaves, and duping a colleague, to attack his perceived enemies.
Last Thursday, the day New Times hit the streets (and Barna's desk), Avila got the ax.
"That Thursday I read the New Times article and Avila and the station parted ways. I was totally shocked. There wasn't a doubt in my mind about what I had to do [with Avila]."
Spike us! E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call Patti Epler at 602-229-8451.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.