Harsh indictments spotlight questionable moves by prosecutors under Allister Adel

Lauren Castle and Uriel J. Garcia Arizona Republic

Published 7:00 a.m. MT Feb. 21, 2021 | Updated 12:58 p.m. MT Feb. 22, 2021

Maricopa County Attorney Allister Adel dismissed a case against 15 people facing street gang charges after an October social justice protest, but the county attorney and her prosecutors remain under scrutiny.

Questions remain over why the harsh charges were pursued in the first place, why a prosecutor whose husband is a state trooper was allowed to handle the case and why Adel was not fully apprised of the approach.

The indictment occurred days after she suffered a serious fall.

The Maricopa County Attorney’s Office is again reviewing the evidence against the 15 protesters, according to spokesperson Jennifer Liewer. The prosecutor has been removed from the case. And the office is weighing whether it should conduct further reviews of charges brought against other protesters.

The office’s practice of having management review high profile and complex cases before charging decisions did not happen, Adel said. She decided to dismiss the case after a Feb. 12 review.

Adel said in a statement Saturday that she did not sign off on the charges.

“I was not aware of the Oct. 27 grand jury presentation prior to it occurring, nor did I ‘approve’ the charges,” Adel said. “We are continuing to look into this matter to determine how and why those critical steps were missed, so we can correct it going forward.”

Paul Gattone, a lawyer for multiple protesters, said the indictments were outrageous and the prosecution showed little evidence, especially for the gang charge.

Jocquese Blackwell, a lawyer for one of the protesters, said, “I think an apology should be made because you have a number of individual clients whose lives were turned upside down.”

What happened on Oct. 17?

Demonstrations over the deaths of Dion Johnson in Phoenix and George Floyd in Minneapolis took place for months after they were killed by officers on Memorial Day, May 25.

Hundreds of people were arrested in Arizona protests in 2020, but none have gained more attention than these 15.

A flyer publicized the event planned for Oct. 17, according to court records submitted by prosecutors in November. The post stated “No Justice. No Peace. ”

“We’ve been peaceful. We’ve been patient. We’ve been ignored. Phoenix PD underestimates the power of the people. March with us to occupy Washington Street and remind PD who they serve. We will not stay silent until we get justice. Phoenix will have no peace. ”

That evening, 15 people demonstrated in downtown Phoenix. The group began marching in the road and “soon began throwing incendiary devices that emitted smoke at officers,” according to a report at the time from Sgt. Ann Justus, Phoenix police spokesperson.

The group worked together to avoid arrest and turned violent when officers apprehended them, Sgt. Douglas McBride stated during an evidentiary hearing. He said the group was dressed in black, carried umbrellas and used the common phrases “All Cops Are Bastards” and “ACAB.”

Across the country, many protesters this summer wore black to events. Protesters have used umbrellas to protect themselves from the Arizona sun, block their identities if they do not want to be seen and as shields to protect themselves from tear gas.

Indictments were brought against many of the 15 defendants on charges of rioting, obstructing a public thoroughfare, unlawful assembly, aggravated assault and street gang activity.

The gang charges, which if convicted carry a much harsher penalty, drew immediate attention.

Reported by ABC 15. “It concludes with a determination if charges are appropriate and what those charges should be, so I can make a final charging decision.”

Adel said Saturday, “As I stated last Monday, the procedures that should have been followed for a case of this nature (i.e., high profile) weren’t followed. ”

Questions linger about prosecutor

April Sponsel, the prosecutor handling the gang crimes case, works in the County Attorney’s Office first responders bureau, created by Adel to prosecute assaults and other offenses against first responders.

For months, advocates have criticized the assignment of the case to Sponsel because she is married to Department of Public Safety Trooper Alfonso Galindo, who was shot at by a 17- year-old boy in September.

Attorneys for defendants said Sponsel couldn’t be fair because their clients and other protesters were calling for justice in the killing of Johnson, who was shot and killed by a DPS trooper. Adel announced in September she would not criminally charge Trooper George Cervantes.

Also on Nov. 2, The Republic asked the County Attorney’s Office if it was a conflict of interest for Sponsel to be on the case.

“As outlined in our office’s ethics policy, prosecutors are prohibited from having a personal relationship with a victim or witness on a case,” Adel said in response. “I take this policy seriously, and this office strictly adheres to it.”

A court motion filed Nov. 2 asked the judge to disqualify Sponsel from prosecuting the cases. Dave Erlichman, Amy Beth Kaper’s attorney at the time, stated Sponsel had a conflict of interest because of her marriage.

“It is entirely unavoidable for the assigned attorney by reason of her marriage, to be placed in a position where she could be influenced by senior officials of the State Police who could directly impact the career of her husband in a positive and or negative manner,” the court motion said.

Blackwell, who represented Johnson’s family as his death was being investigated, said from an optics perspective it was a conflict of interest since the protesters were chanting for justice on the behalf of Johnson and other people of color.

He said people with “rational minds and clear thinking” should have told Sponsel to keep away from the case.

Sponsel responded to the defense’s motion on Nov. 16. She claimed the protesters were not advocating for justice concerning Johnson’s death because a protest relating to his death had happened a month earlier, on Sept. 24.

The prosecutor called the events on Oct. 17 “riots” and stated in her response to the court that defense had not proved DPS was connected to the protest that day or that her husband could influence the case’s outcome.

Sponsel accused the defense by its words of striking a “disturbing tone of a personal attack” without evidence that she would be unethical because of her marriage.

Sponsel’s supervisor is Sherry Leckrone, first responders bureau chief, who is a former Fountain Hills councilmember. Leckrone’s supervisor is Vince Goddard, specialized prosecution 1 division chief. Goddard oversees multiple bureaus, including homicide, gang and capital litigation.

Liewer, the county attorney spokesperson, said after the charges were dismissed, “At this point, it is premature to discuss any personnel issues related to this matter. ”

Even though the case against the 15 protesters was dismissed, the County Attorney’s Office named Ryan Green, the office’s training and post-conviction division chief, as the new prosecutor.

According to court records, Sponsel is still the prosecutor on other cases involving different protesters. Some of the defendants face charges for aggravated assault on officers.

Attorneys file multiple motions challenging charges

Suvarna Ratnam, 25, spent weeks in jail after being arrested Oct. 17. Activists rallied for Ratnam’s release.

Ratnam told The Republic the past two months has been surreal, “like a fever dream.”

“The MCAO situation has affected my schooling, ability to find housing or work, ” Ratnam said. “Without each of these key items, I feel I’ve been most robbed of my sense of security.”

Ratnam’s attorney, Kenneth Countryman, said, “My client deserves a medal for standing up for this issue. These kids are real heroes. They stood up against a policy.