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Pima County court system frees felons with violent pasts

TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) — It’s an alarming cycle of deadly violence. Pima County is now under intense scrutiny over how it handles criminal justice reform.

Law enforcement officials recently told county supervisors that parts of the system were faulty.

And now this council decides whether the county should continue on the same path for another 10 years.

KOLD has been reviewing a handful of murder cases for weeks and investigating a breakdown in the criminal justice system.

At its last board meeting, the supervisors broached the subject.

Law enforcement officials told the council that the current system needs to be fixed because decisions about who stays in jail and who doesn’t are inconsistent.

Some leaders have played the blame game and what they have revealed is alarming.

And so is what we found in court records about a handful of murders and it raises serious questions as to why the suspects were released from prison.

A killer with a violent criminal past freed by court twice early last year.

Brandon Michael Watts, many will say, should have been in jail awaiting trial.

But several months later, police said he shot and killed his girlfriend, barricaded himself in a hotel with hostages, including children, and then killed himself after a standoff of several hours.

His case sparked outrage in the community, with many wondering how a dangerous criminal could end up on the streets?

Watts has had two arrests in 2021 alone: ​​January and March.

A charge of assault for domestic violence as well as aggravated assault with a dangerous instrument.

Watts had been released from prison on bail at the time of the rampage.

“We’re at the point in society where they have to recognize that if we all think a simple arrest is going to change someone’s behavior, then you’re wrong,” Tucson Police Chief Chad Kasmar said.

Temporary release is like a get out of prison card, but with conditions.

Each arrested person goes through the pre-trial services.

This is the first step in a legal process to determine whether a suspect remains in prison or is released on conditions.

Watts had a long criminal past.

The Pima County District Attorney’s Office considered him a risk to re-offend and recommended $35,000 bond.

Court records show Watts had a history of violent behavior, an ongoing risk to the victim, prior felony convictions including manslaughter in another state, a significant misdemeanor record and a history of failed court appearances. court hearings.

However, he was released on bail.

“Preparation services are interrupted. They have a computer system, they type in something, it gives a recommendation and it says it’s handed over to pretrial services,’ former deputy chief of criminal affairs David Berkman said.

And city magistrates, he said, can trust those pre-trial reports.

“Which is pretty worthless and then come on, well, that’s not our problem,” Berkman said.

But it’s a problem for the Tucson police when dangerous criminals on bail are back on the streets, free to kill.

“We have very extensive contact with violent offenders, with drug dealers who are prohibitive possessors, and we’ve been arrested four to six times with over 17 felony charges who spend less than 24 hours in jail,” he said. explained Kasmar.

Violent Offenders which includes Zachary Naifeh, Justin Nichols, Rico Roman and Robert Rosas.

They have all been ordered not to possess weapons, having been charged with murder for the past two years while on bail at the time of the murders.

Frustrating results for Kasmar, who says his detectives are sometimes not consulted before release decisions are made.

“I will also speak on behalf of the other chiefs and the sheriff, that we all seek consistent decision-making, transparency and accountability,” he said, “We should also expect the release interim or any court order- make that happen.

The man in charge of preliminary services is Domingo Corona.

KOLD sat down with him to discuss why these dangerous criminals were released, but he told us he couldn’t speak publicly about specific cases, only about the pretrial system, which he champions.

“We are only one of the four components of the evaluation process. Again, we provide the court with information relevant to the law, criminal history and risk assessment. And then the prosecutor will submit a recommendation. The defense attorney will submit a recommendation and law enforcement will provide details of the case to the judge,” Corona said.

But are there areas of the system that need to be corrected or revised?

“I think we’re doing a really good job here, but you know, having said that, you know, I think it’s always best to look at the cases, you know, in review to see what happened in these cases and if there was anything that could have been done differently,” Corona said.

And sometimes his office has these conversations, Corona said. And this is not a conversation where anyone should be defensive, Kasmar added.

Kasmar thinks the entire Pima County court system should be looked at.

“We need to step back and look at the system and see what kind of change we can make collaboratively that gives us different results. And I think the community should expect those conversations to continue. I think they should demand it,” Kasmar said.

KOLD will continue to investigate how the county is handling criminal justice reform.

The council is due to vote on Tuesday April 19 on whether to renew its 10-year intergovernmental agreement which has a direct impact on the pretrial system.

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