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

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Superior Court Judge David Udall calls the court to order at 9 a.m., and most of the other lawyers are ready to go. Trial dates are scheduled. Guilty pleas are made.

Everything is moving along nicely, except Matthew Smiley is still missing.

The prosecutor is not happy about it. "Have you seen Smiley this morning?" he quizzes one of the public defenders at, oh, roughly 9:45 a.m.

"Smiley?" asks the public defender.

"He's in your office," the prosecutor says, impatiently.

The public defender turns to one of his colleagues. "Who's Smiley?" he asks.

The other one shrugs: "I have no idea."

By the time Smiley finally shows up, more than an hour late, all other scheduling is long done. Judge Udall has retreated to his chambers, and the prosecutors are steaming.

So Smiley doesn't have time to so much as say "hi" to his client before Judge Udall reappears, eager to finish scheduling matters.

Because Smiley has never really talked to his client, he schedules the next hearing smack in the middle of Ritter-Clark's honeymoon.

This is what passes for justice in Maricopa County. It's hard to sit here, and watch the process grind on, and not want to stand up and shout that something has to give.

Marie Clark says her son came to her with tears in his eyes. He is, after all, about to get married, with a baby on the way.

"Mom, if I end up in jail, will you take care of my family?" Jacob asked.

What can she say? What can anyone say?

And here's the craziest part.

The "victim," the guy Jacob Ritter-Clark supposedly assaulted, is himself a convicted felon. Jonathan Belarde had been found guilty of theft and aggravated assault — and was released from prison just one month before he climbed into Jonathan Hernandez's car on that fateful night. Police records show that he, like his driver, had been drinking. His injuries were not life-threatening, but they were pretty serious.

After the accident, Belarde violated parole and ended up in prison again. He died there in September 2007, according to state records. (Prison records say he died of natural causes; corrections officials provided no further information.)

This is the "victim" whom prosecutors are supposedly protecting by prosecuting Jacob Ritter-Clark. A dead thug.

What a county.

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Sarah Fenske
Contact: Sarah Fenske