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Death-Penalty Lawyers Are Making a Killing Off Maricopa Taxpayers

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"That just goes to show that he is not taking me serious," Godinez-Garcia said. "My case is very important to me and my family, and I need a lawyer that will take me serious." (Another inmate translated into English what Godinez-Garcia said for the handwritten missive.)

But Johnson remained on the defendant's case until early this year, when another private attorney on the county's contract list replaced him.

Daniel Garcia-Saenz is another murder defendant who expressed serious dissatisfaction with Steve Johnson in writing. He also is a Mexican national and remains accused with three other defendants in the 2008 drug-related home-invasion murder of a West Phoenix man. Actually, the accused man wanted both lead attorney Carr and co-counsel Johnson off his case.

In late 2009, Garcia-Saenz informed trial judge Michael Kemp that his attorneys weren't paying any attention to his case.

"There is no way I could ever trust such dishonest and incompetent attorneys," the defendant wrote. "They have repeatedly told me they would visit and would bring information to me to review and then broke those promises. This is the same type of dishonesty they have demonstrated for a year and continue to do so in my case."

Judges usually pay little heed to such grievances, not wanting indigent clients to engage in lawyer-hopping as trial dates near.

But Kemp, a former county and federal prosecutor, was concerned enough to hold a hearing in December 2009 on the issue. According to a court transcript, the judge asked Nate Carr how many interviews he had conducted in the case during the year and a half he had been on it.

None, Carr replied, suggesting he simply followed the lead of other attorneys in the multi-defendant case.

Carr actually agreed with Garcia-Saenz about the lack of mutual trust between the attorneys and their client.

Kemp allowed Carr and co-counsel Johnson to withdraw, without sanction. More than three years later, Garcia-Saenz still is awaiting resolution of his case.

Jim Logan approved all of Carr and Johnson's bills in the case, almost $100,000 for Carr and $40,000 for Johnson.

Looking over the pair's invoices in Garcia-Saenz, it appears that both men were hard at work as the case edged forward. But court files show that they filed just four minimal legal motions between them during their year and a half on board and, as Carr admitted, had completed no interviews.

In May 2009, Nate Carr claimed to have worked 28 of 31 days (including each Sunday in that span) on Garcia-Saenz, including six meetings with co-counsel Johnson.

"Discussion with team about this god-awful mess," Carr wrote on an invoice that month in which he asked for and got $7,300 from the county.

In September 2009, Carr billed the county $8,250 after supposedly working every day that month — including Labor Day — on the Garcia-Saenz case.

He charged two hours on September 29 for what he called "media review," noting on the invoice, "Found some new old articles, kinda an oxymoron." That would be $150 for reading brief news stories about the home-invasion killing.

Carr also billed 61 hours in the Naranjo case ($7,625), saying he had worked on it for all but four days that month. He also was paid for another alleged 159 hours of work on behalf of other murder clients, for another $14,000.

On Friday, September 17, he billed 10 hours for work on various cases, including Daniel Garcia-Saenz's ("Research-witness questions") and Israel Naranjo's ("Had to listen to confession — not good.")

What makes that date noteworthy is that the Glendale Mountain Ridge High School football team traveled to Chandler late that afternoon for a game against powerful Hamilton.

From 2006 through the end of last season, Carr served as offensive coordinator for Ridge, a time-consuming passion of his from the late summer into December. People at the county courthouse who know the onetime University of Arizona football walk-on tell New Times that coaching seems Carr's true passion.

To put in 10 hours of work that September 17 would have been a tall order for Nate Carr, who often was unavailable to clients and co-counsel on most weekday afternoons during football season — and always on game days.

"He was really into his coaching," says Taylor Fox, Carr's co-counsel in the Naranjo case. "I don't think he missed too many practices, and he never was around on Fridays if he could help it."

Pat Gitre, a Phoenix attorney who worked on Garcia-Saenz on behalf of the Mexican consulate (because of the defendant's nationality), said this when asked about the work of Carr and Johnson in that case:

"Death-penalty work is a lifestyle choice and has to be a passion. If you hop on the money train, don't give a rat's ass about the consequences, and you can get away with it, that's on you. Your client may end up dying, but what the hell."

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin