County Attorney Rick Romley last month asked another agency to determine whether criminal jury-tampering charges should be filed against Sandra Canter, a seven-year veteran of the office. Although the Pinal County Attorney's Office declined to file charges, Romley decided last week to demote Canter and cut her annual salary by 5 percent.
Canter has informed Romley she plans to appeal her punishment to the county Merit System Commission.
The discipline stems from an April 25 incident during a recess in grand jury proceedings. Canter isn't contesting she erred badly by telling the foreman in frustration to take control of the panel and to keep things moving along.
But Canter alleges that the punishment doesn't fit the crime, especially since she's the one who brought the incident to the attention of a supervisor shortly after it happened.
Because grand jury proceedings are secret under Arizona law, no one is revealing specific details of the case that led Canter to vent her feelings with the foreman. But, says Canter's attorney, Tom Rogers, another prosecutor successfully represented the case to a different grand jury after Canter's error came to light.
"This situation might never have occurred," Rogers argued in papers filed May 13 with the county's Merit System Commission, "but for the lack of training and ongoing guidance in her new role before the grand jury. . . . She will not repeat her mistake because of her own efforts and professional commitment, not because of disciplinary action by the Maricopa County attorney."
Grand juries determine if "probable cause" exists that a crime may have been committed. Routinely, they then issue a "true bill," which lists the charges against a defendant.
Grand jury testimony is taken in a closed-door setting, unchallenged by the accused. Most in the criminal justice arena see the proceedings as a sort of star chamber, in which grand jurors obediently follow the direction of prosecutors unfettered by defense attorneys, the public and the press.
However, grand jurors are allowed to ask their own questions, and Canter's outburst came after grand jurors got bogged down with what she considered to be irrelevant inquiries.
"Ms. Canter indicated that the [grand jury] foreman should take control so that the jury could refocus on the issues before it and get on with its work," Rogers wrote in the notice of Canter's appeal.
The secretive nature of the panel makes what happened with Sandra Canter and the grand juror intolerable, says Superior Court Judge Ron Reinstein, who presides over the courts' criminal division.
"The prosecutors that run the grand jury--Miles Nelson and Charles Donofrio--really run a tight ship and go by the book," Reinstein says. "They are well-aware that even an appearance of impropriety taints the process. They contacted me soon after they learned that Sandra had screwed up. I questioned the grand jury and I reiterated to the people that they can ask prosecutors whatever questions they think are relevant to the case at hand."
That the County Attorney's Office learned about Canter's wrongdoing from Canter herself should be considered in mitigation, says attorney Tom Rogers.
"The entire matter was brought to the attention of Ms. Canter's supervisors because she reported her own mistake," Rogers notes. "She believed that the interests of justice and her ethical duty required her disclosure and follow-up action. The demotion may have a chilling effect on honest self-reporting of mistakes and may encourage others not to report such errors for fear of similar overreaction and retaliation."
But Paul Ahler, the office's chief deputy, says such situations should never be taken lightly.
"We prosecutors have a lot of power," he says, "and it's just not right to abuse it in any fashion. That's why we've responded this way in this unfortunate circumstance."
The discipline against Canter will reduce her salary from $53,435 to $50,772 annually, says Shawn Nau, a deputy county attorney who handles personnel matters.
Canter tried at a meeting last week to persuade Romley and other members of the County Attorney's Office to reconsider the punishment, but on Friday Romley ordered the demotion.