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Flagstaff crime and courts year in review: Steven Jones case, Black Lives Matter protests and COVID-19
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2020 YEAR IN REVIEW | CRIME AND COURTS

Flagstaff crime and courts year in review: Steven Jones case, Black Lives Matter protests and COVID-19

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Flagstaff saw massive police protests, the coronavirus pandemic's impact on the courts, and high-profile cases reach a conclusion in 2020. Here are some of the biggest stories of 2020:

Steven Jones

Weeks before the high-profile second trial for NAU shooting suspect Steven Jones, he pleaded guilty to manslaughter. The story captured the attention of people around the country after Jones shot four university students on campus in 2015, which led to the death of student Colin Brough.

After the first trial ended in a mistrial, Jones' lawyers argued that jurors had already decided his client was not guilty of first-degree murder and should not have to be retried. Coconino County Attorney's Office lowered the charges to second degree murder before the first trial, and many media outlets from around the country prepared to cover the retrial. In January, Jones' attorneys said his client hadn't pleaded guilty earlier, because prosecutors hadn't offered a deal.

Many victims and families were angered by Judge Dan Slayton's decision to give Jones a six-year sentence for his actions early that October morning that forever scarred three young men and left one family without a son.

Steven Jones given six-year sentence for NAU shooting in 2015

Protests and police funding

A global pandemic didn't stop thousands of people in Flagstaff from taking their anger to the streets after George Floyd was killed by a police officer in Minneapolis in May. Protesters were united in their outrage by police killings and mistreatment of minority populations.

The multiple days of repeated protest led some in the city to push the Flagstaff City Council to discuss an 11th-hour plea to reduce police funding from future budgets, in line with "defund the police" rallying cries. The discussion led to some of the longest public comment discussions in the city's history due to massive turnout for people supporting defunding and conversely funding the police, and even led the Flagstaff City Council to change its public comment rules. At later protests, one man was arrested for blocking off the protest with his car and protesters accused him of brandishing a gun at the crowd.

Now the Flagstaff City Council, Flagstaff police and staff are discussing changes to mental health calls to 911, and the possibility of a rehabilitation center focused on Native American populations that would be in line with better treatment of minority and vulnerable communities.

Deshaun Martinez

Deshaun Martinez’s death by starvation rocked the people of Flagstaff and topped headlines around the state. The mother, father and grandmother are currently in Coconino County jail charged with first-degree murder and child abuse for locking the 6-year-old boy in a closet with his 7-year-old brother without food.

The family alleged to police that they did this to the boys to "discipline" them. They told police they often wouldn't feed the boy breakfast until noon. The boy weighed just 18 pounds when he died, well below the average for his age.

The complex case is going through the Coconino County Superior Court, where each of the family members has retained their own attorney.

Pandemic court closures, delays

The impact this year's closures had on the courts cannot be understated. It's possible the court system will continue to see the effects for years to come.

Several trials whose conclusions were expected this year were delayed by months. Some new cases were able to move forward a bit, but for many months it was unclear whether any trials would occur this year. Lawyers struggled to interview witnesses to establish facts for motions and arguments. In the courtroom, judges now manage conference calls as opposed to court decorum.

Trials have been allowed to resume, but it's still only a fraction of what it the system was built to run.

COVID-19 exposure delays Coconino County Superior Court's first trial since March

Releasing non-violent inmates

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The Coconino County criminal justice system agreed to release around 50 inmates during the pandemic in March in response to concerns about the coronavirus spreading within the jail. Coconino County Presiding Judge Dan Slayton signed the court order to release the inmates as one of many ways the court tried to adapt to the coronavirus. Coconino County Jail Commander Matt Figueroa worked with the court and said the decision was needed due to the more than 400 people in the facility before the pandemic hit Coconino County.

At best, the jail lowered its population down to 200 people, although months later the numbers continued to return to nearly 400. Within the prison facility’s tight living conditions, prisoners are at risk for highly transmissible diseases like COVID-19. Judges tried to rely upon jury summons for non-violent offenses as opposed to jail holdings.

Coconino County jail releases nonviolent inmates in light of coronavirus concerns

Sasha Krause

The body of Mennonite Sunday school teacher Sasha Krause was found in February in the forests of Coconino County with her hands bound with duct tape after being shot in the back of the head. Krause had been missing for more than a month, and was from a Mennonite community near Farmington, New Mexico.

Two months later, the Coconino County Sheriff's Office announced the surprise arrest of Mark Gooch, a 21-year-old Arizona Airman First Class at Luke Air Force Base, and accused him of first-degree homicide. Gooch’s brother Samuel was later arrested and was sentenced to three years of probation for hindering prosecution by taking the gun the airman used in the crime. Mark Gooch is being held on $2 million bail, and is awaiting trial.

Trial date set to determine guilt of airman in Mennonite woman's murder case

Flagstaff's courthouse

The City of Flagstaff’s new municipal courthouse is expected to last for some time, and was hoped to be in use by the city’s legal teams for years to come. The building is three stories tall with a 40,000-square-foot layout with several courtrooms.

Kinney Construction Services helped build the new courthouse, which will also house the City of Flagstaff’s Prosecutor’s Office at 101 W. Cherry Ave. The building was first funded through a $12 million bond in 2016. It will now provide multiple private spaces for attorneys and clients to conference on cases before and after hearings, in addition to multiple new courthouses for the many Flagstaff City Court operations.

New Flagstaff Municipal Courthouse opens downtown

Mental health

Flagstaff law enforcement are now relying on mental health professionals to primarily respond to calls stemming from mental health crises. Mental health crisis calls include emergency calls that are caused by sadness, anxiety, depression, domestic violence or suicidal thoughts. The move is one that Flagstaff law enforcement expect will help reduce their call volumes for mental health calls, which many believe officers are not adequately trained to respond properly.

Through the combined effort of Crisis Response Network and mobile response team Terros Health, dispatchers will have the opportunity to divert relevant calls through mental health professionals and better provide mental health resources to people in need. The two agencies are funded through state taxes, so the move is not expected to divert city funds or require an increase in taxes.

Flagstaff mental health specialists partner to respond to crisis 911 calls

Tanker explosion  

In March, days before the coronavirus pandemic would reach the Coconino County community, a tanker filled with fuel charged down the Interstate 40 exit ramp on Butler Avenue, flipped and burst into flames. The town doesn’t commonly see large explosions, but the smoke from the blaze was visible around Flagstaff late that night.

A witness heard the tanker screeching down the exit ramp before the tanker flipped. Bystanders pulled the driver out of the car after the first explosion, while the second explosion made other witnesses stay away from the blaze. The driver survived his injuries and no one else was hurt in the fire, which burned for hours. Later inspections of the nearby interstate bridge showed it remained structurally sound.

Retention election

After Coconino County voted to switch to merit selection, retention election system for county judges, 2020 was the first time the new system was put into use. The system asks citizens to give up their right to elect judges in favor of a more transparent judicial process where the Arizona governor is allowed to elect the judges based upon independent review of applicants.

This year, Coconino County Judge Cathleen Brown Nichols was worried about the amount of people who did not return surveys, and was the first person to test the retention election system in Coconino County. Nichols comfortably won her retention election, continuing her years of service that first started in 2013. Former Presiding Judge Mark Moran announced his retirement this year, beginning the first time that the county will make use of the merit selection part of the process.

In Coconino County's first retention election, Judge Brown Nichols keeps seat
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