On July 25, James Womble stabbed his Flagstaff landlord Peter Gillespie, killing him. Womble wasn’t charged with second-degree murder until three months later.
On Oct. 13, the body of Glendale kindergarten teacher Cathryn Gorospe was found in Mayer, a week after she bailed Charlie Malzahn of Williams out of jail. Malzahn is currently in the custody of the Phoenix Police Department, but he has not been charged in Gorospe’s death.
And on Nov. 2, Flagstaff resident Ethan Watson, 25, was stabbed to death in the parking lot of Killip Elementary School. The suspect in that case is currently in Coconino County Detention Facility for an outstanding warrant, but he has not been charged.
In each case, charges were delayed or have not been filed despite all three men being the only suspects in their case. Womble admitted to stabbing his landlord in self-defense and Malzahn was arrested by police while driving Gorospe’s Toyota Rav4 and told police where the teacher’s body was located. The suspect in the Watson death was identified by bystanders and taken into custody but not formally charged.
With these charges being delayed or non-existent, it’s natural to ask why a murder charge can sometimes take months to materialize.
Beyond a reasonable doubt
Coconino County Attorney William Ring said he understands the concerns that people may have when a prime suspect is not immediately charged for a violent crime such as murder. However, his office is not willing to charge someone unless they have proof beyond a reasonable doubt, meaning that no other logical explanation can be derived from the facts except that the defendant committed the crime.
“There is so much work that goes into prosecuting a case and we are not going to bring charges unless there is a substantial amount of evidence against a person,” Ring said.
He went on to say that his office will always take their time on filing a criminal complaint because of what a prosecution entails for an individual.
“We have due process of law and a right to liberty,” Ring said. “What we are talking about when we prosecute someone is an interruption of their liberty and we respect the liberty of those being accused.”
Ring would not comment on specific cases, but was willing to talk about the public perception of delayed murder charges.
“I understand the public’s concern about a suspect not being charged,” Ring said. “But when you hear the public you are hearing personal opinion, and we are not motivated by personal opinion.”
Coconino County Attorney Chief Deputy Jane Nicoletti-Jones said that the reality for building a prosecutable case is sometimes not what the public or the victims and their families want, but that the attorney’s office will not charge someone until they are sure they can win at trial.
“The police and the public have a public safety concern because people are bleeding and people are crying when we are dealing with a murder,” Nicoletti-Jones said. “We have to look at it from a different perspective because the only authority we have is to prove a case in court.”
Representatives for the county attorney’s office and the Flagstaff Police Department have said that one of the biggest factors that delays a case or an investigation is waiting on forensic testing from the Arizona Department of Public Safety crime lab or county medical examiner’s office.
“These labs take time and they are key pieces of evidence we need in our investigations,” Flagstaff Police Spokesman Sgt. Cory Runge said.
Lab analysis can amount to anything from blood work to DNA testing and can take up to three months to complete, according to the Arizona Department of Public Safety.
Runge said that testing from the DPS was one of the factors that prolonged Womble’s murder investigation and the reason why a suspect in the Nov. 2 Killip Elementary School stabbing death has not been charged or identified.
Nicoletti-Jones said that police have a timeline of 48 hours to hold a suspect in jail without charging a crime. The attorney’s office can press charges for crimes any time before the statute of limitations runs out – there is no limit for murder charges.
“We can charge a person at any time we think there is enough evidence to go to trial,” Nicoletti-Jones said. “Police need time to analyze a crime scene and wait for a medical examiner's report or labs. All of that has to come together before we can bring a case to trial.”
Ring said that he thought it was a good thing that it was difficult to prosecute a case since it shows that the legal system is working.
“We really value freedom and liberty in our country and we don’t allow governments to deprive it from us without reaching a high-standard of proof, and because of that high standard we are going to take our investigations seriously," he said.