Arizona law gives repeat criminals a free pass

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PHOENIX -- There was no shortage of courtroom drama when Henry Young was sentenced last month.

Peterson: "After he was convicted of a violent crime of aggravated rape. A rape..."
Young: "That's a lie! I don't have to take that, that's a lie!"
Judge: "Mr. Young, you need to be quiet, he's allowed to make his statement."
Young: "That's a lie!"

Young had previous felony convictions in Ohio and then continued his crime spree when he moved to Arizona. Young savagely beat up Gene Fitzsimmons, 81, in January 2011.

Fitzsimmons was tortured for hours. The trail of blood was found both in his Mesa home and car. He died 80 days after the beating; he never regained consciousness.

"In Arizona we want to be able to take into consideration the full scope of someone's criminal history in order to hold them fully accountable," Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery told us.

Currently we don't. It's become a frustration for the Fitzsimmons family.

Steve Peterson's wife was Fitzsimmons niece.

"If you're a two-time loser, you can come to Arizona and be treated like a first offender, ah, you're just inviting crime that way," he said.

Why? It all comes down to semantics. In Arizona, someone's prior criminal history must be ignored if the crime is defined differently in another state.

"He might have been convicted of an offense there that he could not have been convicted of in Arizona so it couldn't be used," Montgomery explained.

Because sexual assault and arson are defined differently in Arizona than in Ohio, Young's prior offenses were excluded during sentencing.

We found out that happens more often than you'd think.

"Probably more than half the time, they have felonies that don't match up to Arizona felonies for us to be able to use them," Montgomery said.

"They're treated as a first-time offender, more often than not," State Sen. Adam Driggs (R, Dist. 11) said.

Driggs is sponsoring Senate Bill 1151, which would give judges the power to use prior convictions to enhance sentences.

"We don't think a person should get a get-out-of-jail-free pass strictly because they move to Arizona with a criminal record," Driggs said.

Unfortunately the bill comes too late to be applied to Young.

"You are a danger to society and specifically to people who try to help you," Judge Susan Brnovich told him during the sentencing hearing.

A clearly frustrated judge, Brnovich could only sentence Young to 21 years. Had his prior record been admissible under Arizona law, Young would be serving 35 years behind bars.

"I don't think you should ever get out of prison," Brnovich told Young. But her hands were tied.

Driggs' bill, which would cut those ties, unanimously passed the Senate and is scheduled to be heard in the House on Thursday, March 15.