Money Pit: Andy Thomas’ Death-Penalty-Laden Years as Maricopa County Attorney

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For any number of reasons — most of them perfectly sound — usually it takes at least two years (but surely not seven, as in Martinson) from arrest to capital trial.

But Judge Ryan was none too kind to Martinson's deputy public defenders in a memo filed in October 2009, shortly before he endorsed Terribile and Van Dreumel's appointments to the case.

"The defense team did not [demonstrate] a good-faith effort to prepare the case for trial in a timely fashion, let alone in any meaningful fashion at all," Ryan wrote, adding that attorneys Joseph Stazzone and Gary Bevilacqua "demonstrated a purposeful refusal to work the case and meet court deadlines, holding the courts, the prosecutor, victim's counsel and the victim's next of kin hostage because they did not get their way."

(The pair had at least three other death-penalty cases in various stages of disposition at the time and certainly never should have taken on Jeff Martinson as a client.)

Remember, Ryan's broadside against the defense came from a judge targeted almost on a daily basis by County Attorney Thomas or his minions. (Later in 2009, Thomas and political ally Sheriff Joe Arpaio moved it up a notch, infamously going after Ryan's direct supervisor, then-presiding criminal court Judge Gary Donahoe on unsubstantiated and quickly abandoned felony "bribery" and "corruption" charges.)

"We were in a very tough spot at that time," says Ryan, who now works in a far less publicly visible Family Court assignment.

"We had more death-penalty cases on our plate than any jurisdiction in the nation, [such] that we didn't have enough prosecutors, judges, or qualified defense attorneys to keep things moving along at a rate that anyone could define as satisfactory."

Things got so bad in Arizona's largest county that the Arizona Supreme Court convened a "Capital Case Task Force" to try to help matters. (Minutes of the committee's first meeting, in early 2007, show that, interestingly, among those in attendance were Kris Eberle — mother of Josh Eberle-Martinson, the child who died on his father Jeff's watch — and Martinson's future defense attorney Treasure Van Dreumel.)

But not much could be done with Maricopa County's backlog and overload of death-penalty cases while Andy Thomas remained at the helm.

Thomas prided himself on his reputation as "Mr. Death Penalty."

Though capital punishment is supposed to be reserved for the "worst of the worst" criminals, dozens of new Maricopa County murder defendants faced possible death sentences each year, an all-time high.

In 2007, Thomas sought death in almost every other potential first-degree murder case that landed in his office. That was more, as Ryan suggests, than any other county in the United States.

Maricopa County then had almost 150 pending death-penalty cases. By contrast, Pima County — with about one-quarter of Maricopa's population (which was almost 4 million at the time) — had just nine pending cases.

Even more graphic, Los Angeles County, with a population of almost 10 million, had but 36 pending capital cases at the end of 2007.

All but a few of the 2007 would-be death-penalty cases brought by Thomas' office ended in guilty plea bargains to reduced charges — many resulting in life sentences and many others in pleas to less-serious crimes.

In one fairly typical case from that era, Maricopa County prosecutors sought death against David Szymanski in a DUI vehicular manslaughter, only the second time in the nation's history that's happened.

Szymanski did the unthinkable: He killed a man while driving drunk in the wrong direction on Loop 101 in Scottsdale.

Though there was a flurry of publicity and talk-radio ranting, was that a capital crime?

Many months and tens of thousands of dollars in court expense later, the death-penalty case fell apart. Szymanski eventually pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced to 22 years in prison.

Thomas' successor, Bill Montgomery, is not at all averse to seeking a death sentence when it seems appropriate. But the County Attorney's Office is far more rational these days about capital filings than during the Thomas years.

As of a few weeks ago, Maricopa County still had 71 death-penalty cases awaiting disposition, half of what it had four years ago.

Those who probably were unhappiest when Andy Thomas resigned as County Attorney in April 2010 to make an unsuccessful run for Arizona Attorney General weren't the people who worked for him.

They had to be members of the criminal-defense bar, especially those (and not just Jeff Martinson's trial lawyers) who struck the mother lode during Thomas' death penalty-laden and historically divisive five years in office.

Here and elsewhere, the vast majority of homicide defendants are poor, and court-appointed attorneys are assigned to represent them.

In Maricopa County, three public-defender agencies handle most, but not all, indigent murder defendants.

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin