Maricopa County attorney defends time it took to charge alleged serial rapist
PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) — Maricopa County Attorney Rachel Mitchell is defending the amount of time it took to file charges against a man accused in a series of sexual assaults, most recently the alleged kidnapping and rape of a 15-year-old girl.
Last week, a county grand jury indicted 32-year-old James Estep on 30 felonies, 20 of which are linked to sexual assault. But before that happened, charges had been previously sent back to police for two cases in Mesa and another in Tempe. Estep was arrested in April in connection with two sexual assaults in Mesa, one that happened that month and another from May 2021. The cases were sent back to Mesa police after Mitchell said there wasn’t enough evidence to pursue charges.
Estep was back behind bars in June after allegedly kidnapping another woman he met at a Tempe bar, then raping her at his home. That case was also sent back to police due to lack of evidence. Then on Aug. 23, Estep was arrested for allegedly kidnapping and raping a 15-year-old girl the day before in Tempe. He was indicted on dozens of charges nine days later.
On Wednesday, Mitchell held a regularly scheduled media event and was asked about the time it took to charge Estep, including the situations where cases were sent back to police for further investigation. She said her office actively worked with police to make sure the cases became strong enough to the point charges could be filed. “I personally got involved in the review of this case to make sure we were doing what we needed to do, and in my estimation, we were. And we will continue to do that.” Mitchell said.
She added that the county attorney’s office must have a provable case, and in this situation, prosecutors “saw things that needed to be shored up” before charges could be filed. “When we start by filing charges, it starts a clock ticking; it requires us to hand over all the evidence,” Mitchell said. “And so to be doing an investigation hoping the evidence shows up, hoping that the case comes together is completely irresponsible. And I stand by what we did.”
She also responded to concerns raised by the community that if the office had acted faster, the alleged assault on the 15-year-old girl would have never happened. Mitchell called the situation “tragic” but said that it’s imperative that her office has evidence upfront before proceeding with a case. “When I took office, this office was under attack for filing charges when the evidence hadn’t been reviewed, and the case was questionable in some situations. I made a promise that that was not going to happen here,” Mitchell explained. “So I’m going to look and make sure that the evidence is there before I go forward because that’s the ethical and responsible thing to do. Sometimes that leads to heartbreaking situations like this.”
She said that in the most recent case, the assault on the 15-year-old girl, additional evidence became available that allowed them to move forward and file charges, ultimately leading to Estep’s indictment. “I think surely sexual assault survivors, having worked with them for 25 years, want their case to be successful. They don’t want a sloppy, reckless prosecutor filing charges that fall apart in court, and then we can’t do anything to get justice for them,” Mitchell said. “So I would think that victims would appreciate that we do that in this office. We take these cases very, very seriously, and that means we go in prepared; we go in with the evidence.”
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