Local justice called crucial to victims' kin

That's why Loughner should face AZ charges as well, prosecutors say
2011-01-17T00:00:00Z 2011-01-17T11:49:10Z Local justice called crucial to victims' kinKim Smith Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
January 17, 2011 12:00 am  • 

When a federal jury in Denver decided Terry Nichols should be spared the death penalty for his part in the Oklahoma City bombing, Richard Wintory saw firsthand the anger, disbelief and disappointment in the eyes of victims' relatives.

When Nichols was later given essentially the same life sentence after being convicted in state court, the families didn't have the same reaction, said Wintory, who was a prosecutor with the Oklahoma County District Attorney's Office at the time.

Wintory, now an assistant Arizona attorney general, said he sees parallels on the horizon in the case against Jared Lee Loughner, accused of killing six people and wounding 13 others in the attack at U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords' "Congress on Your Corner" event.

When those Colorado jurors reached their decision, Wintory said, the victims' family members were so distraught that they went to Bob Macy, the district attorney at the time, and demanded he fulfill his promise to try Nichols in state court.

While they "felt they had not gotten a fair shake in federal court," Wintory said, they were more accepting of the verdict after Nichols was tried in Oklahoma, by Oklahoma prosecutors with an Oklahoma judge and Oklahoma jurors.

That, he said, is why he was pleased when Pima County Attorney Barbara LaWall announced last week that she wants to pursue charges on behalf of all the Jan. 8 shooting victims in Tucson - civilians and federal employees alike.

Those charges would be in addition to federal charges Lough- ner already faces. Loughner is accused of killing U.S. District Judge John Roll and Giffords aide Gabe Zimmerman, and shooting Giffords and two more of her aides, who were all federal employees. U.S. District Judge Larry Alan Burns of San Diego has been assigned to preside over Loughner's case. For now, the case remains in U.S. District Court of Arizona.

But regardless of where the federal trial is held, LaWall's plan would mean Loughner will be tried in Arizona at some point, even if it's not necessarily in Tucson.

"When you know that the people in whose hands the fate of your loved ones rests is a hand that has held the soil of your home as well, it's a big deal," Wintory said.

Many times Wintory has seen victims' family members visibly relax after the jury selection has ended. They've heard the jurors talk about where they work and live and go to school, and it's familiar to them.

"The family will tell me: 'That's a good jury' or, 'That will be a fair jury,' and it doesn't necessarily have a damn thing to do with what they think the verdict is going to be, but it has to do with, 'These people are from here; they get it,' " Wintory said.

LaWall said she fully expects to be criticized for prosecuting Loughner if federal authorities, who already have filed charges, obtain a conviction. That will be especially true if jurors decide he should get the death penalty.

However, she said, "it's just really important to cover our bases. Nothing is ever certain. Even if he gets convicted, it's not certain that it won't be overturned for some reason, legal or factual."

In addition, federal prosecutors will pursue Loughner under federal statutes alleging the victims were killed because they were at a federal event or engaging in federal business.

State prosecutors will pursue Loughner under regular murder and attempted-murder charges, LaWall said. In addition, she intends to seek an indictment for the dozens of people who may not have been shot but were endangered.

The emotional needs of the victims must be addressed locally, LaWall said.

"It's important in the bigger picture because the victims in this community need to know they got justice in this community," LaWall said. "That's really, really important."

Loughner faces one federal count of attempted assassination of a member of Congress, two counts of killing an employee of the federal government - Roll and Zimmerman - and two counts of attempting to kill a federal employee, aides Ron Barber and Pamela Simon.

U.S. Attorney Dennis K. Burke released a statement Friday saying: "For good reason, Federal law dictates these offenses be tried in this District (Arizona). We are moving forward and confident in this course."

By Thursday night, LaWall said she had offered her personal condolences to many of the victims and their family members, and was continuing to reach out to others. At this point, she said, the focus has been on their emotional needs, not the legal process.

Only Barber has asked about the legal process, she said. She told him it will likely be years before Loughner comes to trial in state court.

Perhaps that will work to the state's advantage, LaWall said.

The more time that goes by, the less likely a judge will feel the need to move the case out of Tucson, she said.

The last time a judge moved a case outside Pima County, it was both a logistical and emotional nightmare, LaWall said.

Christopher "Bo" Huerstel and Kajornsak "Tom" Prasertphong were tried in Prescott in August 2000 in the slayings of Robert Curry, 44, James Bloxham, 17, and Melissa "Lisa" Moniz, 20, at an east-side Pizza Hut.

Curry's sister, Kathy Weir, stayed in Prescott for 3 1/2 weeks of the five-week trial.

She wasn't home to run her business; she spent every night in a hotel, ate out every meal and didn't have the luxury of having friends and extended family members nearby for support.

The financial burden was lifted by the county, but "it was extremely difficult," Weir said.

She left before Huerstel's verdict was even announced because "it was too traumatic to have to sit there doing nothing" during the 30 hours it took them to reach a decision, she said.

Although he is sympathetic to the plight of victims' families, defense attorney Michael Piccarreta said there are more important things to be considered when someone is facing murder charges and a possible death penalty.

"It's an inconvenience, but these cases are so serious. Why do we want to take the risk of having a potentially unfair trial and having to do it again in two to three years?" Piccarreta asked.

He said that he doesn't believe Loughner can be tried in Tucson, simply because so many people in town are connected to the victims. Plus, the level of media attention has been unprecedented.

LaWall should file charges against Loughner, but rethink actually taking Loughner to trial at the conclusion of the federal case, Piccarreta said. By then, a verdict will have been rendered and more facts will be known.

Apart from the need for finding unbiased jurors, Piccarreta said, location isn't an issue for him.

"I don't think it makes a hill of beans' worth of difference as to whether justice is done in our own community or elsewhere," Piccarreta said.

Contact reporter Kim Smith at 573-4241 or kimsmith@azstarnet.com

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