He wasn’t driving drunk, he didn’t hit anyone, but he might still go to jail

Page 2 of 3

No, Ritter-Clark answered, truthfully. But he had friends who went and, someday, he'd like to go, he told the cop.

It was only months later, when Ritter-Clark got a summons in the mail, that he realized he was in any trouble.

He was so confused that he actually went down to the Mesa Police Department and looked at a copy of the police report. It was then that he realized he'd become a criminal defendant in the very case in which he had turned around to call 911.

And never mind what you heard in school about "innocent until proven guilty." From that point, it was up to Jacob Ritter-Clark to prove himself innocent.

Now, that wouldn't normally be so difficult. To show that Ritter-Clark is guilty of aggravated assault, prosecutors don't have to show only that he was speeding, or even drag racing. They'd have to show that he recklessly caused the accident — or used his vehicle as a "dangerous instrument." Both seem pretty ludicrous in light of the fact that he never touched the other car and that the other driver was drunk and ripping through traffic at nearly 90 miles per hour.

Unfortunately, the person who ought to be able to help Ritter-Clark fight the charges, and take the case to trial, has been kicked off the case.

Marie Clark, Jacob's mother, tells me that her family refinanced their house in order to hire Chuck Franklin, a Scottsdale attorney. Franklin is a smart, experienced lawyer — although he's arguably best known for the giant RV that tools around the Valley advertising his services.

Franklin, clearly, thought Ritter-Clark's protestations of innocence had some merit. He asked for a "complex case" designation, estimating that his firm would hire as many as five experts and do 20 witness interviews.

Then came the complication. Franklin's small firm had just hired a young lawyer from the County Attorney's Office. And, though no one realized it at first, as a prosecutor, that lawyer had visited the crash scene and had been in a meeting where the Ritter-Clark case was discussed. Because of that, the County Attorney's Office asked the judge to disqualify Franklin's entire firm.

The judge agreed. And though Franklin fought the ruling, appealing all the way to the Arizona Supreme Court, the judge's decision stood.

By that point, Ritter-Clark's family was low on money. They'd paid Franklin $11,000, and even though he's refunded more than half of it, the lawyers they consulted were not willing to take the case to trial for less than $12,500.

Jacob Ritter-Clark was working as a contract employee at TRW, but his contract wasn't renewed. His car has been repossessed — and he still owes $12,500 on his car loan.

He was assigned a public defender.

The family liked Franklin. They trusted him.

They do not feel the same way about Matthew Smiley. An attorney contracted with the Office of Public Defense Services, Smiley has officially been part of the case since October but didn't even get a copy of the police report until last week. He's never so much as called his client. Until I gave it to them, Ritter-Clark's family didn't even have Smiley's phone number.

(Smiley declined comment, saying he needs to sit down with his client before he can say anything about the case.)

If Jacob Ritter-Clark wants to make a deal, he'll have to plead guilty to a felony. If he refuses, and he's found guilty of aggravated assault at a trial, the minimum sentence he could receive is five years of hard time.

Marie Clark is so worried that she starts tearing up just talking about her son. She's had to go on anti-anxiety medication for the first time in her life, she confides.

"We can't have our lawyer," Clark says. "So now what do we do? And if my son goes to prison for something he didn't do, what am I supposed to do?"

On June 26, Jacob Ritter-Clark is at yet another court hearing. He's dressed carefully, in a black button-up shirt. His mom is there, and his dad, and his fiancée, Kadi Horvath, who is four months pregnant.

He wants to make a good impression. He hopes someone will notice a man who is loved. Someone expecting his first child. Someone whose mother is worried sick.

But no one notices.

The judge is scheduling other cases. The prosecutors have a ton of work and need to keep things moving.

And Jacob Clark-Ritter's lawyer is nowhere to be seen.

"He called me for the first time this morning," says Marie Clark. Her eyes are anxious. "He asked if he was still representing us."

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Sarah Fenske
Contact: Sarah Fenske