When Chelsee Dennis’ boyfriend was arrested after an attack at a Sunnyslope neighborhood school, Phoenix prosecutors ordered the boyfriend to stay away from a teacher who had intervened to help her — but not to stay away from Dennis herself, Phoenix New Times has learned.
Thirty-six-year-old Dwight Miles was arrested March 27 at the Franklin Phonetic School, barely three weeks before Dennis, who was 29, was shot in the head. At Miles’ initial appearance, prosecutor BeBe Parascandola unilaterally dismissed assault charges and asked Phoenix Municipal Court Judge Alicia Lawler to release Miles on his own recognizance.
Parascandola also asked that Miles be ordered to stay away from the school and from second-grade teacher Tom Franklin, who had come to Dennis’ aid while she struggled with Miles, a recording of Miles’ initial court appearance shows.
“Can you obey those conditions, sir?” Lawler said, before ordering Miles released from jail, according to the tape. You can listen to the stunning details here:
Miles is charged with two counts of first-degree murder in the April 17 shooting death of Dennis and the couple’s unborn child. It’s a fresh embarrassment for the Phoenix Prosecutor's Office, which has had two other accused domestic violence offenders graduate to murder charges in less than two years.
On Wednesday – nearly a week after Phoenix New Times documented the series of collapses that have left two women and a teenage girl dead – Vicki Hill, Phoenix's top prosecutor, asked her employees “to take a comprehensive look at our internal DV process,” according to an email obtained by New Times.
“Please get your creative juices flowing,” Hill wrote in the email, sent to all staff, “or think about that DV case as you are handling it and ask, ‘what if?’ I am asking for your thoughtful and constructive ideas in both the broad scale, and in minor case processing tasks.”
This is at least the second major review of her agency’s domestic violence procedures that Hill has undertaken in as many years. In September 2016, Parascandola dropped domestic violence charges against Kodi Bowe, who was accused of beating his girlfriend, Taylorlyn Nelson.
Nelson’s dismembered body was found at the bottom of Lake Pleasant the following summer. Bowe, along with his relatives, has been charged with her murder. Hill’s office claimed to have overhauled her office’s procedures at the time.
“I am very upset because had they actually charged him with the crime he committed … he would have been away from my sister and she could possibly still be alive today,” Nelson’s sister, Ashley, told New Times in a Facebook exchange.
Maricopa County prosecutors have offered Bowe a plea deal that would have him serve between 24 and 28 years in prison — “practically nothing,” Ashley Nelson said.
“I have no faith in the justice for the people any more,” she added.
Maricopa County Attorney officials did not respond to a request seeking comment.
After Dennis died, Hill’s staff met briefly on April 25 to discuss what had gone wrong in the Miles case, a law-enforcement source said, but no concrete steps were taken.
Nelson’s and Dennis’ stories are two of hundreds of similar cases in Arizona, which has become one of the deadliest states in the union for domestic violence. New Times also reported on the case of Ignacio Estrada, 20, who is charged with first-degree murder in the July 14, 2017, shotgun-shooting death of his sister, Reyna. Ignacio Estrada was awaiting trial on two separate domestic violence incidents — one involving his mother, the other involving his brother — when Reyna was killed.
City officials have suggested that Estrada’s case is different from the Miles and Bowe cases because the alleged victim was a family member and not a lover. But it still raises uncomfortable questions for Phoenix officials because Estrada had skipped two separate court dates in the domestic violence cases and was the subject of at least two separate bench warrants, city officials confirmed to New Times. Yet he wasn’t arrested until Reyna was already dead.
Phoenix spokeswoman Julie Watters declined to comment, and declined to make either Hill or Parascondola available for interviews. Lawler, the judge at Miles’ initial appearance, couldn’t be reached for comment. New Times has filed several open records requests with the city on its handling of domestic violence cases; request coordinator Kristen Merser says she is still “processing” them.
State Senator Katie Hobbs, a Democrat from Phoenix, says there are structural problems in Arizona that make it so deadly for women. (Arizona is eighth in the country for female homicides.) For starters, she says, an abuser only faces felony charges for domestic violence on his or her third offense – and then only if prosecutors agree to charge the case as a felony.
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“The consequences for domestic violence offenders – they’re not really adequate,” said Hobbs, a former advocate for domestic-violence victims. “Law enforcement is over-extended. Every government organization lacks resources. It gets old, it gets frustrating.”
Hobbs, who is running for Secretary of State, admits that Arizona won’t be able to arrest its way out of its domestic-violence crisis. But she says that allowing for felony domestic-violence charges might be one “tool to hold people accountable.”
“If you ask any of these victims what they want, they’re probably not going to say, ‘He should be arrested.’ They’re going to say that they want the violence to stop,” she said.
Bill Myers is a freelance reporter. Email him at email@example.com. He tweets from @billcaphill.