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N4T Investigators: Tainted justice?

TUCSON – Dozens of Pima County court cases may have been tainted because of a mistake by the county attorney’s office, according to the county’s chief public defender.

“It’s a huge deal and all I need to prove that is put yourself in one of our clients’ positions,” said Public Defender Joel Feinman. “You’re arrested, you’re indicted, you’re sent to prison. Three years later it comes out that one of the officers involved in your case was a liar.”

What Feinman means is that a police officer who was a listed witness in many cases was caught lying years ago, and by law, the county attorney should have immediately notified defendants and their lawyers about that prior instance of lying.

“Every citizen has the right to know if a witness who’s going to be called against them is a liar or not,” Feinman told the News 4 Tucson Investigators. “And the county attorney, it’s their obligation to provide that.”

It all started after a fight at a bar in Marana in 2015. A Tucson Police Officer named Crystal Morales was found by TPD to have lied about her role in the altercation. The News 4 Tucson Investigators have obtained a letter dated Feb. 9, 2016, which TPD Lieutenant Matt Ronstadt sent to prosecutors, properly notifying them about the cop’s dishonesty. The county attorney’s office should have then put Morales on the Brady List. That’s the list of law enforcement employees who’ve been caught lying and whose names prosecutors must turn over to the defense, because their credibility could be questioned at trial or any point in an investigation.

However, just last month, Tom Weaver, then the Chief Criminal Deputy in the county attorney’s office, sent a letter to the public defender, saying Morales “should have been listed on the Brady List back in early 2016.”

Feinman said, “Is that a big deal to you that you didn’t know about that the entire time? The prosecutor never told you, ‘Hey, this officer who arrested you, this officer who interviewed witnesses, this officer who our case depends on is a liar? You went to prison without knowing that. Is that a big deal? It’s huge.”

Jason Kreag is a law professor at the University of Arizona and a former criminal defense attorney. Kreag is not connected to this case. He read the TPD investigative reports regarding Morales, and the letter from the county attorney’s office saying that the officer should have been on the Brady List in 2016. Kreag said the acknowledgment letter from former Chief Criminal Deputy Weaver to prosecutors is “a good first step” (Weaver retired last Friday). But Kreag calls the three-year delay, a “significant mistake.”

“Here we have an officer who is known to have committed knowing falsehoods during an investigation of a very important crime, and this was evidence that could have impeached her credibility in every case that she was involved in. We need to know why she was left off the Brady List for these three years. Only the county attorney’s office can answer that.

County Attorney Barbara LaWall declined our interview request. Instead, she sent a statement, saying, “We do not know exactly what happened that caused the omission of  TPD Officer Crystal Morales from the Brady List.” LaWall also said that since 2015, Morales was involved in 75 cases. Feinman disagrees. “I’d say we have her involved in 200 cases. Whether or not she was a listed witness doesn’t matter.”

Lawall sent us a list of the closed cases in which she claims Morales was a listed witness. Almost all the defendants pled guilty. Feinman said, “Those people who pled guilty might not have pled guilty if they had known that an officer involved in the case was on record as not telling the truth in an official investigation.”

LaWall said after the omission was noticed last month, “we immediately informed all attorneys with open cases in which Officer Morales was a listed witness and sent them the Brady documents as well. Not one attorney has contacted us indicating an issue with their case, and no one has filed any motions either.”

Feinman responded, “No attorney has filed one of these motions yet because it’s a very time-consuming process.” He pointed out that it’s been only five weeks since the county attorney’s office notified him of the omission, and that many of the public defender’s clients are behind bars, so they’re not easily accessible.

The letter from TPD to LaWall’s office in 2016 about Officer Morales was sent to Kellie Johnson, then LaWall’s Chief Criminal Deputy. Johnson is now a Pima County Superior Court Judge, appointed by Gov. Ducey in 2017 to fill a vacancy. Johnson declined to comment through a court spokesperson, who said since Johnson no longer works for the county attorney, “…she does not want to assume, provide inaccurate information, try to recreate a situation, or comment on a letter that may or may not have been received by the county attorney’s office three years ago.”

“Someone clearly dropped the ball here,” Professor Kreag said. “But ultimately it’s the chief prosecutor’s office, the elected prosecutor. Here, Ms. LaWall’s responsibility to ensure that her office complies with Brady. There’s an investigation that needs to happen. The county attorney’s office needs to figure out how this officer wasn’t placed on the Brady list at the right time, right? It’s their responsibility to do that.”

Tucson Police say Officer Morales has since been promoted to detective in the neighborhood crimes section. Professor Kreag said, “She’s gathering evidence, she’s taking statements from people. She’s putting her credibility on the line each time she writes a police report saying ‘This is what someone told me happened.”

Is this an isolated mistake or has the county attorney failed to inform defense lawyers about others who should be on Brady, possibly affecting the fate of more defendants? Feinman said, “That’s the really important question right now and that’s why it’s so important to find out why this happened. Was this a systemic failure?”

Both lawyers we interviewed said any defendant who was in a court case in which Officer Morales was involved should immediately contact their attorney.

Feinman, who lost to LaWall in the 2016 Democratic primary for county attorney, says his staff is reviewing every case the officer was involved in. He says it is an extremely time-consuming process, but, “It’s critical because the constitution is at stake.”

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Matthew Schwartz

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