A deceptively simple assault prosecution involving a Maricopa County sheriff's deputy and a Gila Bend couple has ended after nearly two years and more machinations than in some murder cases.
The case of State of Arizona vs. Clemente and Maria Hinojosa concluded, happily for the couple, with something of a whimper: short probation terms for each after they pleaded guilty to misdemeanor disorderly conduct.
But before it got to that point, courthouse insiders gabbed for months about the legal goings-on:
The under-the-radar saga began with a routine civil dispute that escalated into a nasty brawl between the Hinojosas and a deputy, and wound up with felony assault charges against the couple (even though Clemente Hinojosa got the worst of the clash, by far).
The case included felony criminal convictions for both Clemente and Maria after a nine-day trial, followed by a judge's order for a new trial (because of a prosecutor's misstatement to jurors), and concluded with the March 9 plea bargain to reduced charges.
The underpinnings of the case include the increasing acrimony between many local Latinos (the Hinojosas are Mexican citizens who have been living in the United States — legally — for about 20 years and with no prior criminal convictions) and local law enforcement, especially the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office.
Robyn Varcoe, Clemente Hinojosa's defense attorney, says she was contacted about the case some time ago by an investigator for the U.S. Justice Department as part of that agency's interminable civil rights probe into Sheriff Joe Arpaio and his controversial policies.
On the afternoon of June 19, 2009, sheriff's deputies Jeremy Templeton and Darryl Johnson responded to a call at the Hinojosa Tire Shop on East Pima Street in Gila Bend. According to Templeton's police report, a customer at the shop said he had left four truck tires there for repair "a few weeks" earlier.
The man said shop employees claimed they couldn't find the tires and that he hadn't come back within a week for them, as he was supposed to (a receipt showed that it actually had been almost two months between visits).
It sounded like a typical small-claims civil dispute, something that cops generally are loath to mediate.
But Deputy Templeton apparently didn't appreciate the attitudes of the Hinojosas, as he later noted in his report that "throughout [my] interview with Clemente and Maria, Maria was very argumentative and uncooperative with us as we asked questions."
The deputy wrote that he and Deputy Johnson "spoke amongst each other and began to suspect a possible theft had occurred involving [the man's] tires."
Because of the "inconsistencies" in the couple's accounts of the tire incident, the deputies asked them for identification. Clemente produced his, but his wife reportedly told them that she had none.
"Maria began to yell that we are just harassing them because they are Mexican," Templeton wrote.
Clemente walked to the office and retrieved Maria's purse, after which she took out her driver's license and handed it over.
This is where things turned stupid.
Instead of de-escalating the scene, Deputy Templeton (in his own words) "concluded I was going to issue Maria a citation for false information to Law Enforcement for lying about not having any type of identification, when indeed she did."
Templeton told Maria that she needed to sign the citation — legally, there was no such need — at which time Clemente stepped in front of her and allegedly said, 'You're not giving her a ticket! You're not taking her to jail!"
The 27-year-old Templeton claimed in his report that Clemente, 50 at the time and slight, suddenly shoved him hard. His story was that Clemente picked up a nearby chair and threw it at him, hitting him in the chest.
Clemente, Templeton maintained, then attacked him with his fists, peppering the deputy with blows to his head and face before the younger man could respond.
And "respond" Deputy Templeton did, opening a gash in Clemente's head that required four stitches, loosening eight of his teeth, and knocking him unconscious.
Templeton wrote in his report that Maria Hinojosa also had hit him in the back and back of his the head as he "defended" himself against Clemente's alleged onslaught of blows.
Templeton's partner, Johnson, later claimed not to have seen who threw the first punch because he was outside speaking to the supposed victim of the tire theft.
His left hand was bleeding, and he was in pain after the clash, Templeton said, though prosecutors later produced no photographic evidence to corroborate his account.
The deputies decided to arrest the Hinojosas for assault against a peace officer, a felony, and other charges. Deputy Johnson later wrote in his report, "As we were taking [Maria] into custody, she feigned faint and slowly sat down on the ground."
The couple were taken to the Maricopa County Medical Center for treatment before transport to the Fourth Avenue Jail in downtown Phoenix. They spent about 36 hours there before being released on bond.
Interestingly, Deputy Johnson failed to mention anything about an aggravated assault in the first draft of his report, but he added it in his final draft.
A county grand jury indicted the Hinojosas, after which a judge appointed attorneys to represent them — Robyn Varcoe for Clemente and Gregory Navazo and Dawn Sinclair of the Legal Defender's Office for Maria.
For various reasons, the case took about 18 months to get to trial after plea negotiations fell through. During that time, the Hinojosas sold their tire shop (Clemente now operates a small, mobile tire-repair operation) and drove the round-trip of about 100 miles to downtown Phoenix for court hearings.
Judge Cari Harrison presided during a contentious nine-day trial (cases with similar charges usually take no more than a day or two) that included more than two full days of testimony by Deputy Templeton.
Among the defense witnesses was Roberto Camerena, who testified he had been passing through Gila Bend and happened to be an eyewitness. Camerena, a journalist for a Spanish-speaking publication in Southern California, testified that Deputy Templeton had been the instigator of the melee, not the Hinojosas.
Judge Harrison dismissed the resisting arrest count against Clemente and a charge of threatening and intimidating against Maria before the jury began its deliberations last November 19.
The couple's defense attorneys also asked the judge to give jury instructions on self-defense and the defense of a third person, which Harrison did. The idea behind that request was to determine whether the panel believed that if either Clemente or Maria had touched Deputy Templeton, it was to protect themselves and not to hurt or provoke the officer.
That instruction became important during Deputy County Attorney Rebecca Kennelly's closing rebuttal argument, when she told jurors that she was "confused as to why this instruction is even in here. If the defendants are claiming that they didn't touch Deputy Templeton, how can it be in self-defense?"
The defense lawyers objected to prosecutor Kennelly's comment, and Judge Harrison told jurors that it was her job, not that of the defense, to decide what instructions to give.
Defense attorney Varcoe tells New Times that she and her colleagues were confident that the jury would acquit their clients, especially in light of what she calls "the ever-changing reports, testimony, and other accounts" of the two MCSO deputies.
But the eight-member panel, which included two young Latinos and six white people, returned in just a few hours with guilty verdicts of aggravated assault against both of the Hinojosas. The jury acquitted Maria of resisting arrest.
After the verdicts, attorneys from both sides and court staff retreated to the jury room to discuss the case with the three jurors who stayed behind.
The foreman, according to Robyn Varcoe, asked why the judge had given the self-defense instruction, when the Hinojosas said they hadn't touched Deputy Templeton.
"He was parroting back what the prosecutor [Kennelly] had told him and the other jurors improperly before they deliberated," she says. "To us, it was clear that the comment had affected that juror and how the deliberations went."
The defense team asked Judge Harrison in legal papers to grant the Hinojosas a new trial. She set a court date for February 11, when she heard from both parties.
The judge ruled from the bench immediately after arguments, granting the motion for a new trial. Such rulings, it should be noted, are rare in county Superior Court.
A few weeks ago, Clemente and Maria Hinojosa pleaded guilty to the disorderly conduct counts. Misdemeanor charges may have been the most appropriate all along.
Deputy Templeton is said to still be on patrol in the Gila Bend district. Deputy Johnson has transferred to duty at the Maricopa County Superior Court complex.