Judge orders County Attorney Andrew Thomas to court

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PHOENIX -- By judge's order, Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas will be in court today to discuss whether a murder suspect should face the death penalty or whether the case should be settled with a plea bargain.

In a news conference yesterday, Thomas accused county Superior Court judges of trying to force prosecutors into plea deals in some murder cases. Such deals would take the death penalty off the table in those instances and Thomas says he's not willing to do that.

"Let there be no misunderstanding, I will continue to seek this ultimate punishment against vicious first-degree murderer in all appropriate cases," Thomas said. "I campaigned for county attorney and was elected to this office twice by making that promise to the voters. I will not break that promise."

Judge Timothy Ryan has ordered Thomas to appear personally in court for a settlement conference in an ongoing murder case. Such proceedings are usually handled by deputy county attorneys, who are not authorized to settle capital cases.

The judge says he needs somebody in the courtroom who has the authority to settle a death penalty case -- state statute requires it -- and Thomas is that person.

"What happens in these capital cases is the assigned prosecutor shows up to the settlement conference and says the he or she doesn't have authority to settle," explained Judge Gary Donahoe.

According to Ryan's order, Thomas "has assigned himself the sole and final authority to settle any capital cases pending in Maricopa County.  . . . That being said, he must attend."

The showdown is scheduled for 1:30 p.m.

There are five capital cases on trial right now in Maricopa County, and more than 100 other cases are pending.