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Death-Penalty Lawyers Are Making a Killing Off Maricopa Taxpayers

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Twice-suspended attorney Stephen Johnson, still months away from getting his law license back, made his reentry in early 2007 as a death-penalty mitigation specialist.


Since then, Johnson has become the Zelig of Maricopa County's criminal-justice system.

In part, his ubiquitous presence is testament to how desperate county officials were during the Andrew Thomas era to lure practically anyone to work on the rash of capital cases that emerged.

Johnson has collected more than $1 million from Maricopa County since 2007 as either a co-counsel and mitigation specialist in a series of murder cases. That's about $200,000 a year, not bad for a fellow so down on his luck a decade ago that he moved back in with his parents.

A bear of a man, Johnson is known around the courthouse as gregarious and likable. But he long has taken on (and authorities have allowed him to take on) more clients and cases than he can handle. As a result, he inevitably has gotten in trouble with the State Bar of Arizona.

The Arizona Supreme Court suspended Johnson for the second time in May 2004, more than a year after he admitted lying to the state Court of Appeals about why he hadn't submitted legal paperwork on time for an incarcerated client.

More than a dozen people had filed complaints against Johnson before the suspension, claiming he ignored their cases after collecting fees.

"It is apparent that Mr. Johnson's only concern is to receive whatever amount of money he receives with as little or no work as possible," the parents of one of Johnson's incarcerated clients wrote in 2002.

"Mr. Johnson believes he is above and beyond the law."

Johnson's 2004 suspension was for six months and one day — the extra day signifying the formal proceedings he would have to undergo to be reinstated.

He didn't win reinstatement until November 2007. But, meanwhile, he found good-paying jobs ($55 an hour) as a mitigation specialist for Nate Carr in Naranjo and for Randall Craig in the sprawling Mark "Baseline Killer" Goudeau case.

To be appointed in a capital case, rules of the Arizona Supreme Court say, a defense attorney must "be a member in good standing of the State Bar of Arizona for at least five years preceding the appointment" and "have practiced in the area of state criminal litigation for three years preceding the appointment."

Steve Johnson was able to bypass these rules because, without comment, the Supreme Court in January 2008 granted his petition and allowed his appointment as a second-chair attorney in trial and appellate proceedings. (Last September, the court granted another Johnson petition, this one to allow him to be lead counsel in death-penalty cases.)

"It's up to the first chairs who they want as co-counsel or as mitigation specialists," said Jim Logan of the county's Office of Public Defender Services. "I did mention Mr. Johnson's recent history to Mr. Carr and to others at one point or another, and they seemed okay with it."

Among his new cases after his reinstatement as a lawyer, Johnson became co-counsel to Randy Craig in the capital case of Donald Delahanty, accused of killing Phoenix police officer David Uribe during a routine traffic stop on West Cactus Road in May 2005.

Many criminal defendants are prone to whining about their attorneys when things go poorly.

But the several recent clients who have protested to judges and to the State Bar about Johnson sound eerily similar to those of a decade or so ago, when he lost his livelihood for years.

A year ago, the Bar issued a formal reprimand against Johnson after a convicted inmate complained, with good reason, that the attorney — his court-appointed appellate advocate — had not responded to his repeated phone calls and a letter. The reprimand was a hard slap on the wrist, one step short of yet another suspension.

Another complainant was Mexican national Fidel Godinez-Garcia, one of eight men charged in May 2008 in the Phoenix murder of a suspected high-level human-smuggling boss. Court records show that Jim Logan appointed Johnson in late 2008 to replace Nate Carr as lead attorney in the non-capital case.

Godinez-Garcia wrote to the Bar in early July 2010 that his trial supposedly was on the horizon, yet he hadn't spoken with Johnson for months.

This, by the way, should have surprised no one, given the workload that court officials had allowed Johnson to assume. Legitimate mitigation work in Naranjo and Goudeau alone would have been more than enough for most people.

But Johnson also was lead lawyer in one first-degree non-capital murder case and co-counsel in at least three others.

Godinez-Garcia, who doesn't speak English, claimed that Johnson (who doesn't speak Spanish) had showed up for a rare jailhouse visit without an interpreter.

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin