Phoenix Court Whittles Big Capital Case Backlog


Andrew Thomas, the chief prosecutor in Phoenix’ Maricopa County, he has asked for death sentences in murder cases more than 120 times since taking office in 2005, more than any other top prosecutor in Arizona history, says the Arizona Republic. The number of death-penalty defendants swelled faster than the court system can There just weren’t enough judges, prosecutors and qualified defense attorneys available. At the beginning of the year, there were 129 defendants awaiting trial in capital cases, most of them years beyond the 18-month time period in which they are supposed to be tried.

The number of capital cases is being whittled down rapidly. Faced with a growing backlog. Presiding Criminal Judge Gary Donahoe and other judges are refusing to postpone trial dates in death-penalty cases and demanding that prosecutors and defense attorneys discuss settlements, which would mean less than a death sentence. The goal is to apply pressure to resolve cases more quickly, but both Thomas and defense attorneys question whether justice is being best served. “I think firm trial dates settle cases,” Donahoe said. “People start looking at their cases when it gets close to their trial date and start making decisions as to whether they want to go to trial or settle it. They can plead, go to trial, dismiss. We don’t really care which. But we want to get the case resolved.” So far, the tactic has worked. Despite his hard-line pledges, Thomas this year has allowed 27 defendants who faced the death penalty to plead to life sentences or less. That’s nearly twice as many as last year and eight times as many as in 2005. He also has filed fewer notices of intent to seek the death penalty.

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