A heated exchange in court, a contempt citation issued and then rescinded and disputes about plea bargain deals rejected by judges have spawned conflict in Gila County Superior Court.
Elected as county attorney last year, Bradley Beauchamp has replaced most of the prosecutors in his office and criticized plea bargains made by his predecessor. In some recent cases, the prosecutor’s office has objected to the refusal of judges to accept plea bargains agreed to by defense attorneys.
But the most direct confrontation so far involved in-court behavior rather than a plea bargain. In April, Superior Court Judge Peter Cahill held deputy county attorney Shawn Fuller in contempt of court after he walked out of a courtroom during a hearing.
Fuller later apologized and Cahill purged the order.
However, since that time Fuller has routinely requested a different judge for the trials he prosecutes. Cahill has historically presided over most North County trials and Fuller had prosecuted most major crimes in North County.
Moreover, in another case Cahill said prosecutor Marc Stanley was “sullying” up the record by presenting new evidence at a sentencing hearing without giving the defense time to review and respond.
Several times Cahill has balked at plea deals prosecutors negotiated with defense attorneys.
Fuller did not respond to the Roundup’s request for comment as of press time. Officers of the court typically do not comment on judicial proceedings outside the courtroom.
Cahill said in an e-mail that he could not comment, but asked the Roundup to speak with retired Judge Ron Reinstein for perspective.
Reinstein, who served 22 years as a judge of the Superior Court of Arizona, said although prosecutors and judges may not always agree, their personal differences should not impede justice.
Tensions can rise, however, when judges do not approve plea agreements that lawyers hammer out.
“A lot of times the lawyers present a plea deal and they expect them to rubber stamp it,” he said. “But judges are not potted plants and they have to use their independent judgment. That is what the system is all about.”
Plea deals settle the overwhelming majority of cases in Gila County, with only a small percentage going to trial. Legal experts say the system would collapse if most cases did require a trial. Prosecutors have wide latitude when it comes to charging someone with a specific crime. Defendants must decide whether to accept a plea deal or risk a trial on much more serious charges. For instance, one local Realtor facing child pornography charges rejected the offer of a plea deal that would have required him to plead guilty in return for a relatively brief sentence. Instead, he insisted on his innocence and went to trial on much more extensive charges. Once convicted, the state’s mandatory sentencing laws resulted in a sentence of 90 years in prison.
Usually, prosecutors and the defense attorney hammer out a deal then present it to the judge for approval. A judge can either accept or reject it. If the judge rejects the recommended sentence, the lawyers can rework the deal and present it to the judge again or go to trial.
“There is a natural tension between a judge that wants to exercise judicial discretion and prosecutors and defense attorneys who want to exercise their discretion,” Reinstein said.
When judges reject plea deals, prosecutors sometimes get upset, he said. The prosecutors argue the judge likely has only limited information on the case and should not overrule the lawyers who negotiated the deal. Reinstein said while judges accept most plea deals, sometimes they may want the lawyers to explain their reasoning — especially if the judge gave a defendant probation for the same charge six months ago only to find the new defendant agreeing to a jail term.
Although judges and lawyers may have differences, both sides should maintain their professionalism, Reinstein said. Not doing so can disrupt the system and court operations.
During a case hearing in April, things appeared to boil over between Fuller and Cahill.
Some six weeks before a trial was set to start, Fuller asked Cahill for an extension of time to have an expert evaluate a defendant and decide if he was legally insane. The defendant in the case was accused of trying to kill two people with an ax and setting fire to a home in late 2011.
The dispute between Fuller and Judge Cahill involved a discussion about whether the court should hire an expert to determine whether the defendant was insane. The complicated discussion turned on whether the defense could have one expert, the prosecution another and the court itself a third to offer expert testimony on the defendant’s sanity. The issue was further complicated by the fact that one expert — Dr. Barry Morenz — had apparently already separately evaluated the defendant. The transcript doesn’t say how Morenz had been previously involved in the case. However, the prosecutors in the transcript maintained that the same expert couldn’t both evaluate the defendant’s competency to stand trial and whether he was legally insane at the time he committed the crime.
Fuller said he needed the extra time because the expert he wanted wasn’t available right away.
“You should hire an expert who is available,” Cahill said, noting the defendant had been in jail for more than a year. “Hiring somebody who’s not reasonably available is not a good chance,” Cahill said according to a transcript of the hearing obtained by the Roundup. “I’ve been concerned about this because you’ve waited so long.”
Under the law, said Fuller, the court had to hire its own independent expert or send the defendant to the state hospital.
The defense attorney disagreed, saying the court didn’t have to do either of those things — but could if it chose. “What the statute says is the court may do this,” said attorney Anna Ortiz.
Cahill then had a discussion with Ortiz about whether he should appoint Dr. Barry Morenz as the court’s independent expert.
“The statute says, and I think Mr. Fuller is arguing, that I need to appoint an independent expert, a knowledgeable expert. Is it your position that I should appoint Morenz, who, by the way, the state has appointed and you apparently wanted him to do a sanity assessment; is that right?”
Ortiz responded, “Are you asking the state?”
“No,” said Cahill.
“Oh,” said Ortiz, “you’re asking me if you should appoint Dr. Morenz?”
“Yes,” said Cahill.
“That would be fine,” said Ortiz.
“OK,” said Cahill.
“You cannot do that,” objected Fuller.
It is not immediately clear from the transcript why Fuller objected. However, later in the transcript, Beauchamp argued that the court couldn’t appoint as an expert on the insanity defense a doctor who had already rendered an opinion on whether the defendant was competent to stand trial.
But with Fuller’s objection, the discussion turned confrontational.
“Now, just hold on,” Cahill said, according to the transcript. “Can’t you just get a grip on yourself? Can’t you be polite to one judge? Can’t you do that?”
“I’m out, I’m out, I’m out,” Fuller replied before walking out of the courtroom.
Beauchamp, who was in the courtroom, but not at Fuller’s counsel table, jumped in. “OK. Hold on. Hold on. I will take over.”
Cahill called out, “And, sir, — just a second. Fuller.”
Fuller walked back in and said “First of all, it’s Mr. Fuller, judge.”
“Mr. Fuller, you were outside the courtroom, that’s why I needed to get your attention right away. You sit down,” Cahill said.
Beauchamp interjected, “I’ve got it.”
Cahill continued to Fuller, “You have got to learn polite, basic kindergarten manners.”
The discussion returned to the complicated issue of legal experts and whether the judge could — or must — appoint a third expert in addition to experts selected by the defense and the prosecutors.
Beauchamp reiterated that the law required the court to get its own independent expert.
Cahill discussed what he would do, while continuing to reproach the prosecution for not finding an expert witness sooner. Several times he asked the state if they were listening to him. Finally, he reproached the prosecution.
“So I’m ... you’re giving me so little attention, being so impolite that you continue to talk with co-counsel while I’m talking to you,” he said. “I’ll give your authority the same respect that you give the court.”
Four days after this hearing, Cahill concluded that Fuller was in civil contempt of court.
In his motion, Cahill laid out what had happened and noted that during another hearing in the case, held March 13, Fuller had interrupted defense attorney Ortiz as he had on April 5.
Cahill wrote that Fuller’s actions were “rude” and “disrespectful” and “lessened the dignity and authority of the court and the proceedings.”
Additionally, Cahill said Fuller’s conduct raised security concerns. Cahill said if defendants witness attorneys storming out in anger, they might think that it is OK to do so too.
“A prosecutor’s conduct, even interrupting opposing counsel, can affect the integrity of the justice system,” he wrote.
Cahill met with Fuller’s lawyer, Ed Novak, to discuss the matter in his chambers. Later, Fuller met with Cahill and Fuller apologized.
Cahill then purged the contempt order, according to court records.
Fuller has since requested a different judge for more than a dozen of his new cases.