A retired judge will conduct an outside review of a case in which 15 protesters were charged as members of a criminal street gang, the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office announced.
Retired Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Roland Steinle was asked to review the office’s procedures “when making charging decisions in cases of community interest or those that have possible impacts to policy,” the office said in a news release on Monday.
County Attorney Allister Adel also asked Steinle to recommend ways to improve the office’s processes and to review whether there were ethical violations related to the prosecution of the case.
“As County Attorney, I am committed to ensuring that this office adheres to the highest standards,” Adel said in a statement, adding later, “In this particular matter, I believe that we could have done better to meet these standards.”
Adel and the office have been criticized for months over the case, which stemmed from arrests during an Oct. 17 protest in downtown Phoenix.
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.
On Saturday, the county attorney said in a statement to The Republic that she wasn’t aware of the presentation a prosecutor in her office made to a grand jury on Oct. 27 and she didn’t “approve” seeking gang-crime charges.
The indictments occurred days after she suffered a serious fall.
The office dismissed the case on Feb. 12, with Adel saying the office’s practice of having management review high-profile and complex cases before charging decisions did not happen.
The protesters were wearing black and carrying umbrellas at the time of their arrest. An officer claimed they used the phrases “All Cops Are Bastards” and “ACAB,” and worked together to not be apprehended. One defendant claimed officers didn’t arrest pro-Trump supporters nearby.
Attorneys for the protesters for months have been filing motions to dismiss the case. They have also raised concerns over a potential conflict: The lead prosecutor is married to a Department of Public Safety trooper, and the protest focused on the death of Dion Johnson, who had been killed by a DPS trooper.
April Sponsel is married to Trooper Alfonso Galindo, who was shot at by a 17-year-old boy in September.
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.”
Sponsel is now removed from the case. Even though the case was dismissed, MCAO replaced Sponsel with Ryan Green, the office’s training and post-conviction division chief, as the new prosecutor.
In a June email to staff, Adel told prosecutors with concerns of police use of force in their cases should send them to Green. She said Green will review the cases with Tom Van Dorn, the office’s director of investigations, who will reach out to the specific law enforcement agency “to discuss the concerns.” Van Dorn formerly worked for the Phoenix Police Department.
Who is retired Judge Roland Steinle?
Steinle served on the bench from 2001-2016 in Maricopa County Superior Court. Nine of those years were in the criminal division.
The retired judge spoke to The Republic in its 2020 investigation into former prosecutor Juan Martinez. Adel fired Martinez last year after allegations he retaliated against women who claimed he harassed them.
The Republic documented the accounts of 17 women who say Martinez harassed or mistreated them in various ways.
The Republic also reported how past county attorneys, judges and regulators at the State Bar of Arizona wrote off allegations of misconduct and reports of sexual harassment against Martinez.
Martinez’s career unraveled after the Jodi Arias trial, where he was accused of ethical misconduct, including disseminating confidential information about a juror to his blogger girlfriend, sexting with an ex-juror, harassing a court reporter and lying during a State Bar investigation.
Martinez agreed to be disbarred July 17, ending a State Bar investigation into the allegations involving the Arias trial and claims that he sexually harassed coworkers at the County Attorney’s Office.
In his interview with The Republic, Steinle said Martinez knew which judges he could push and “exactly where he can cut corners and get away with it.” He claimed Martinez tried to avoid being in his courtroom.
“When you play it fast and loose, do you really want a judge who is going to hold you accountable?”
The retired judge said his hands were tied with Martinez because he didn’t think he had jurisdiction if the behavior didn’t happen in his courtroom.
Steinle said he was aware of Martinez’s pursuit of women. He said he didn’t act because he never perceived a direct complaint.
On Feb. 12, 2018, Steinle spoke at an Arizona state Senate hearing for a proposed bill concerning delinquent restitution. He testified to lawmakers why it is important for judges to play a role in helping the court retrieve delinquent restitution payments for victims.
Steinle stated it was easy for him to see who couldn’t pay versus those who could because it was “really, really obvious.”
When giving an example of people who are not employed and were behind on restitution payments, the judge talked about women.
“We had a number of women who came before me and they hadn’t paid in a year,” he said. “They come up and I say, ‘How do you support yourself?’ ‘Oh, I live with my boyfriend.'”
Steinle said he was a “tough guy” and wouldn’t let “that person” out of paying restitution.
Republic reporters Uriel J. Garcia, Robert Anglen and Anne Ryman contributed to this report.