Chelsee Dennis Died After Phoenix Prosecutors Violated Own Policy by Dropping Charges
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Chelsee Dennis Died After Phoenix Prosecutors Violated Own Policy by Dropping Charges

Phoenix City prosecutors broke with their own policy when they unilaterally dismissed domestic violence charges against a man who is now accused of killing his girlfriend.

On March 27, Dwight Miles was arrested on charges that he attacked his girlfriend, 29-year-old Chelsee Dennis, at her daughter’s school in the Sunnyslope neighborhood. Prosectuor Barbara “BeBe” Parascandola dropped the assault charge despite at least three witnesses to the assault. She also urged Municipal Court Judge Alicia Lawler to release Miles on his own recognizance after charging him only with misdemeanors for trespassing, shoplifting, and disorderly conduct.

Within three weeks, Dennis was dead, shot in the head. Miles is charged with two counts of first-degree murder, accused of killing Dennis and the couple’s unborn child.

Parascandola’s decision contradicts her agency’s own rules, according to internal documents obtained by Phoenix New Times. On June 13, 2017, top prosecutor Vicky Hill issued a memo telling her entire staff, “Do not dismiss a factually or legally sufficient case, even if the victim does not want prosecution.”

That memo was written shortly after prosecutors discovered that Parascandola had dropped domestic violence charges against Kodi Bowe, who was later charged with first-degree murder in the death of his girlfriend, Taylorlyn Nelson. Nelson’s body was found wrapped in a sleeping bag at the bottom of Lake Pleasant in summer 2017.

Bowe had been arrested in September 2016 and charged with misdemeanor assault. Nelson was beaten while the couple were out on a drive. Prosecutors have since claimed that they couldn’t proceed because Nelson didn’t want to pursue charges.

That doesn’t quite answer all the questions surrounding the case, though. At the time of the September 2016 incident, police officers interviewed Nelson while Bowe sat scowling at her from a squad car a few feet away, a law enforcement source said. It raised concern among some officers at the time that Nelson, like so many other victims of domestic violence, had been intimidated into silence, the law enforcement source said.

Additionally, more than 1,100 pages of documents obtained under Arizona’s open records laws show that prosecutors had been given formal training on how to prosecute cases where the victim is reluctant to testify.

“What kind of HERO are you?” Maricopa County Assistant Attorney Jon Eliason wrote in slides he presented to the Phoenix City Prosecutor’s Office in 2016.

Eliason, the top prosecutor, laid out several strategies for introducing a victim’s statements at trial and even gave tips on what to do if a victim recanted her accusations on the stand, the record shows.

“Do Everything you can to get your victim to court!” Eliason urged his colleagues. “PROSECUTE IT LIKE A MURDER SO IT DOESN’T BECOME ONE!”

In any event, Chelsee Dennis did want to proceed with prosecution, according to internal records and the law enforcement source.

After Miles was arrested for assault on March 27, Dennis spoke with Jesi Moore, a victims’ advocate in the prosecutor’s office. Dennis told Moore she wanted Miles jailed so that she and her daughter could get away from him, emails show and the source said. She also sought an order of protection against Miles, but by the time she went to the city jail to serve him with the papers, he had already been released, the law enforcement source said.

Miles – unlike Bowe – had a long criminal record when he was arrested on March 27. Phoenix City prosecutors were told as late as February that Miles had a warrant out for his arrest on unrelated charges (the warrant was later quashed), records show.

New Times has documented a series of failures in the prosecutor’s office that have left Nelson, Dennis, and 15-year-old Reyna Estrada dead, part of a statewide crisis that has made Arizona dangerous for its women. Arizona’s domestic violence rate is third highest in the country, and it ranks eighth in the nation for female homicides, federal data show.

After New Times began reporting on the crisis, Hill asked her staff to revisit its domestic violence processes, just as they were supposed to have done after the Nelson homicide.

It’s not clear whether any lessons are sinking in even now. In the weeks since Dennis died, prosecutors have urged judges to release at least four separate domestic violence suspects without bond, the law enforcement source said. In at least one case, on May 22, officers on Phoenix police’s domestic violence squad had to scramble to a woman’s home after her boyfriend – fresh from his release on domestic violence charges – began stalking her again, the law enforcement source said.

Parascadola has declined multiple requests for comment. Hill was vacationing and couldn’t be reached for comment. City officials claim that they cannot discuss the Miles case because he is facing criminal charges and they do not want to spoil his chance at a fair trial.

“As we’ve said, in Phoenix, as in other jurisdictions, we have successes and challenges with domestic violence cases that enter our court rooms,” city spokeswoman Julie Watters said in a statement.

But internal emails obtained by New Times reveal an agency every bit as concerned about spinning its own problems as it is with fixing them. Pages of public records are consumed by city officials fighting to get New Times to put its questions in writing.

“I would rather this guy put his questions in writing,” Phoenix Attorney Brad Holm says in an April 26 email, “and we all work on a written response.”

Watters complained that she felt New Times’ approach was “not fair and at this point feels like bullying.”

Notwithstanding all of the chaos (and carnage), Phoenix City Manager Ed Zeucher said he still has “complete confidence” in Hill as prosecutor.

“I know Ms. Hill is committed to continual learning and strengthening their prosecution processes,” he told New Times in an email.

Bill Myers is a freelance reporter. Email him at myers101@outlook.com. He tweets from @billcaphill.

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