Court Pressure in Arizona Leads to Settlements in Death Cases
A growing backlog of death penalty cases and delays in starting trials in Arizona’s Maricopa County has forced Superior Court judges to apply pressure on both sides by refusing to postpone trial dates and demanding that attorneys discuss settlements. The backlog came as a result of County Attorney Andrew Thomas’s aggressive pursuit of death sentences in more than 120 cases since taking office in 2005. The number of death penalty defendants grew faster than the courts could handle them. Over 100 death penalty defendants are still awaiting trial in Maricopa County, most of whom are beyond the 18-month time period in which they are supposed to be tried. “I think firm trial dates settle cases,” said Presiding Criminal Judge Gary Donahoe. The pressure is apparently working. This year, Thomas has allowed 27 defendants who faced the death penalty to plead to life sentences or less – nearly twice as many as last year, and eight times as many as in the year Thomas first took office. There is a schedule to try to settle more than 20 cases before the end of 2009. Thomas has also filed fewer notices of intent to seek the death penalty.