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Update 2.26.2015

The Pinal County Clerk of Court has issued a press release today providing additional details about the story below in which the County Attorney’s office was found to have improperly violated a court order by accessing sealed documents through the Clerk of Court’s computer system.

The newly elected Clerk, Amanda Stanford, alleges that her predecessor, Chad Roche, engaged in a “deliberate and concerted effort” to cover up the fact that hundreds of security breaches of the Clerk of Court computer system had occurred, in addition to the two that Roche disclosed to the media last year. She suggests that despite his being notified that there was a fault in the system that was allowing improper access to court documents, Roche did not take meaningful steps to address the problem. At this time it is unknown how many cases were affected by the security violations and what other sealed documents may have been inappropriately viewed. Read the press release here.

Update 8.5.2014

The issues around unethical conduct raised in the Wilson case (discussed below) may run deep in the Pinal County Attorney’s Office, according to a new piece by Sean Holstege for the Arizona Republic. Holstege covers yet another instance where the actions of the County Attorney’s staff in a death penalty case led to problems for the office in court. In this case, “Superior Court Judge Boyd Johnson declared a mistrial after learning that prosecutors misled him by secretly interviewing, without an attorney present, a defense witness who was facing charges in another case.” In the article, former prosecutors are quoted as having misgivings about the Pinal County Attorney’s handling of these cases in which ethical issues have been flagged. See here.

Original Post

The Pinal County Attorney’s office has been removed from a death penalty case after knowingly violating a court order that kept records under seal (i.e. not a matter of public record).

In a 9 page order granting a defense motion to disqualify the Pinal County Attorney’s office from prosecuting capital defendant Richard Wilson, issued on July 8, 2014, visiting judge Peter Cahill concluded that County Attorney Lando Voyles and his staff “felt they were somehow above the law” in what amounted to a “deliberate disregard of court orders.”

Those staff include Chief Deputy Richard Wintory, who was suspended from practicing law by the Arizona Supreme Court for 90 days earlier this year due to misconduct in a different capital case. Wintory was profiled in a piece by the Arizona Republic on prosecutorial misconduct in Arizona last year.

The trouble in the Wilson case began when a paralegal (who Wintory brought with him to Pinal County when he left the Attorney General’s office amid allegations of misconduct) was looking through records in the case on the Clerk of Court’s computer system. The paralegal was doing so under the auspices of providing victim services – the terminal is provided for this limited purpose.

Though the County Attorney has since characterized the paralegal’s actions as a “routine check,” it’s clear from the testimony provided by the paralegal that the she knew she was reading a file that was under seal.

The fact that the documents related to the victim’s medical records was displayed on the cover page of the filing, which was labelled “sealed”. The paralegal could have brought the cover page alone to her superiors’ attention if she was concerned about the filing’s contents. Instead, she kept on reading, printing copies of the entire filing for others to read as well.

By the time she showed the documents to the attorneys in her office, Wintory had already beaten her to the punch, reviewing and printing the sealed documents himself:

“Mr. Hazard met with Mr. Wintory to discuss the sealed documents. Mr. Wintory was told that office personnel had reviewed sealed documents. According to Mr. Hazard, Mr. Wintory reviewed the sealed documents himself as he had the “very document” in his hand.”

If you’re starting to wonder whether any staff in the County Attorney’s office have qualms about reading filings placed under seal by a judge, Wintory’s boss seemed to answer “no” in his testimony to the court and his subsequent press release.

Though Cahill found that Wintory and his paralegal “knew of should have known” that they violated a court order, Voyles shamelessly attempted to turn the incident around onto the defense attorney and judge who filed the documents under seal. His press release reads:

“In this case, the victim’s rights were violated and the motion and records were sealed to cover the defense attorney’s tracks.”

Oh, and don’t forget the Clerk of Court, whose system he blames for the filing being able to be read due to a technical issue:

“The limitations within the COSC’s system allowed the violation to be discovered and thwarted this improper attempt.”

(Cahill calls this excuse ““a smokescreen, an attempt to blame others. Rather than acknowledge that the [County Attorney’s] office deliberately disregarded orders of the court.” The court order says that when Pinal County Clerk of Superior Court Chad Roche learned of the incident, he terminated access to sealed documents by the County Attorney’s staff.)

According to Voyles, it’s a good thing that the County Attorney’s staff disregarded the judge’s wishes: if they hadn’t improperly read the sealed documents, then they wouldn’t have been able to argue that the records were improperly sealed.

Indeed, the prosecutors said they would do it again if they had the opportunity. Cahill writes,

“The court finds that if the lawyers involved in these events were presented with a similar choice, whether or not to comply with lawful orders of the court, Mr. Voyles, Mr. Wintory, and Mr. Easterday (each still in the office) would act consistent with their actions here: They, not the courts, would decide whether Clerk’s records can be reviewed; they would decide whether or not to comply with court orders if in their opinion the judge had made a “bad call”; that where they believed that defense counsel was wrong, they were then free to do whatever they wanted.”

The conclusion one must draw from this shared attitude, Cahill says, is that Voyles’ office believes “it is prosecutors who make the final decision on what records are ‘sealed’ – not the Superior Court.”

Cahill’s order was forwarded to the State Bar of Arizona, which told AZ Central, “There will be an investigation, but at this point we don’t know who will be named in the case, until we do an initial review.”

AZ Central also reminds us that Voyles spent county money without authorization to defend Wintory during his last run-in with the State Bar:

“Voyles hired Wintory, despite the Bar complaint against him and Wintory’s need to defend himself. Voyles spent about $27,500 of county money, without authorization from the Board of Supervisors, for legal fees for Wintory’s defense, even though the underlying case predated his hiring and was from a different county. Ultimately, the county recouped the money, but not without spending more of its own in legal costs.

Now, both men, along with Hazard, are facing new allegations before the Bar.”

Prosecutorial misconduct in Arizona gained national attention with Michael Kiefer’s acclaimed four-part series for the Arizona Republic, published last year. You can read it here.

Read Judge Cahill’s order in full here.

 

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