Maricopa County Attorney’s Office moves to fire prosecutor who submitted street gang charges
PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) - The Maricopa County Attorney’s Office wants to fire a deputy county attorney who submitted criminal street gang charges against a group of protestors in downtown Phoenix. On Monday, Deputy County Attorney April Sponsel was told her office intended to dismiss her for violating several aspects of her job stemming from the street gang charges investigation. The investigation focused on the Oct. 17, 2020, arrest of 15 protesters in downtown Phoenix. The protesters were initially booked for rioting and other crimes. But they were later indicted by a grand jury for assisting a criminal street gang.
Phoenix police officers monitoring protests on Oct. 17 believed the group was trying to block a light rail train. Police say some of the protestors in the group were carrying weapons like an AR-15, a pistol, a stun gun, a metal club, a brick, a knife, and smoke bombs. According to court documents, when the group ignored police commands to clear the street, a police lieutenant at the scene ordered their arrests. After the protestors’ arrest, Sponsel and veteran detective Karl Martin met with several law enforcement officials to discuss the possibility of charging the protestors with “assisting a criminal street gang.”
Sponsel, who filed the indictment on Oct. 27, 2020, was accused by a retired judge investigating the handling of the charges of working too closely with the police and misrepresenting evidence to the grand jury. According to the judge, the allegations against 15 people arrested during the protests were exaggerated, misleading, and incorrect. The gang-related charges were later dropped. The judge called one of the prosecutions a “miscarriage of justice,” and found prosecutors didn’t properly vet the evidence from the police. One suspect turned out to be an innocent bystander, not even involved in the march. Former Maricopa County Attorney Allister Adel dismissed all charges against the protestors on Feb. 12, 2021, “with prejudice” to prevent a refiling of charges. Sponsel was placed on administrative leave on Mar. 2, 2021.
After conducting a formal investigation into Sponsel’s conduct, MCAO officials say Sponsel showed incompetency, inefficiency, and neglect of duty in performing her job. Chief Deputy Paul Ahler noted “a disturbing pattern of excessive charging and a failure to review available evidence.” According to court documents, Ahler wrote that Sponsel’s entire approach to the street gang investigation was concerning, including her charging decisions. Ahler said Sponsel’s decision to wrongfully indict an innocent person with inaccurate evidence showed she failed to review the available evidence, which is one of the reasons for her termination.
Ahler’s investigation also called into question Sponsel’s actions before the grand jury. Court filings state that Sponsel acknowledged in her administrative interview that a prosecutor should not try to influence a grand jury or give an opinion as fact. But Ahler says after review, Sponsel made several “media advisements” to the grand jury with argumentative statements that were more her opinion of the case and “went far beyond what was needed to allow a juror to determine if they had been exposed to any media coverage of these events.” Ultimately, Ahler said many of Sponsel’s statements were exaggerations or were unsupported by the evidence.
Sponsel has until Tuesday to respond and appeal the decision by MCAO.
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