Murky Waters

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Now in private practice, Ryan says he doesn't understand why Rick Romley's office is set on prosecuting cases like Vanessa Rico and Janis Perry.

"I know that Rick has always taken a heightened interest in seeing that every child death is properly investigated and reviewed," Ryan says. "But are they changing the standard for criminal prosecution in a way that will allow the office to be perceived as focusing on minorities and poor women?"

Ryan says most senior prosecutors during his tenure balked at prosecuting caretakers for what seemed to be accidental, if deadly, lapses in judgment: "I remember the [East Valley] grandmother who left her grandson in the car. She was helping her boyfriend run a business, and also was taking care of her daughter's kid. She was just so busy that she left the baby in the car, and he roasted to death -- a horrible death.

"Our Incident Review Board [senior attorneys and supervisors] concluded that she was a loving person who just screwed up, and that a jury would never convict her because her appearance was so genuine, and she was inconsolable."

What, Ryan asks, is different between that case and Vanessa Rico's?

"Let's change a few facts," he says. "Instead of drowning in a tub or frying in a back seat, someone leaves the back door open, gets distracted by a phone call, and a kid falls into a pool and drowns. It's still inattentiveness. That's the Pandora's box they've opened. You're going after people who wish they were dead instead of their child."

Ryan recalls that, in another case, he addressed the board as it contemplated prosecution of a Gilbert couple who also made the fatal mistake of leaving their baby in a scorching car.

"This couple had a bunch of kids, and I spoke about what's it like to be part of a large family," says Ryan, one of 11 siblings. When Ryan was about 4, he told the board, his father -- an eye doctor -- took him and eight of his siblings to northern Arizona to go sledding. On the way, they stopped at a Payson trading post, where Tim somehow got separated from his father. Trouble was, Dr. Ryan didn't know Tim was gone for almost two hours.

"A lady at the store took me to the nearby DPS [Department of Public Safety] station, and I stayed there and had fun until my dad finally figured it out, and came back down and got me. Was he, quote, inattentive? Sure. Could have done a better head count. But if something had happened to me, should he have been prosecuted? No way."

The board declined to prosecute the East Valley couple.

In late June, Superior Court Judge Barry Schneider met with the opposing attorneys in the Vanessa Rico case. Such meetings are standard before a scheduled trial, as a judge tries to get a feel for the way the case might go, including any possibility of a plea bargain.

Schneider asked deputy county attorney Maria Armijo why she was prosecuting Rico on the negligent homicide charge, according to an affidavit filed by Armijo.

"He sees this [Rico] case only as a tragedy and not as a criminal act, and that there is nothing that could really come out of charges . . . [and that] Ms. Rico would think about her daughter every day and live forever with it," the affidavit says. "[Schneider] said that if he were the elected official, he would not charge this case. [He said] if we should charge this, we should charge all of the pool drownings."

Armijo called for Schneider's removal from the case because of alleged "bias and prejudice" against the state. The judge soon recused himself.

Schneider wouldn't discuss the Rico case with New Times, but said Armijo's affidavit generally was accurate. The judge's closed-door comments were not unique in the debate over the propriety of charging parents in their children's preventable, but still accidental, deaths.

Until recently, the attitude of prosecutors around the nation tended to mirror Schneider's. Ten years ago, the Maricopa County Attorney's Office was much more lenient toward parents who had made a terrible mistake. One particularly troubling case involved a 5-month-old child who'd been left in a parked car when the temperature outside was 108 degrees. Somehow, that child survived.

"This is a very difficult area for everyone," office spokesperson Bill FitzGerald told New Times in explaining then why the Valley mother was not being charged, "including the police, firefighters, the prosecutors. Where do you draw the line, and say the parents have been through enough?"

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin