Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Forde trial proceeds to penalty phase

The jury hearing the double homicide case for Minuteman American Defense founder Shawna Forde at Pima County Superior Court was told Tuesday afternoon by Gina Gonzalez that she had known her husband, Raul, since they were 13-years-old.

Brisenia Flores
Gonzalez told the jury that she and Raul “Junior” Flores had been married for 13 years at the time of his murder. She said she and her daughter miss him very much. “Alexandra misses her father,” she said. “I miss my husband. I miss my daughter. I miss my life.”

Earlier in the day, Tuesday, the jury found that the defendant was eligible to receive the death penalty in connection with the May 30, 2009, murder of Flores and their 9-year-old daughter, Brisenia.

The jury had found, Monday, that Forde was guilty of two counts of first-degree murder, the attempted first-degree murder of Gina Gonzalez, the wife of Raul Flores and mother of Brisenia Flores, as well as one count of burglary in the first-degree; one count of aggravated assault, serious physical injury; one count of aggravated assault, deadly weapon/dangerous instrument; one count of armed robbery; and one count of aggravated armed robbery.

Victim impact

The penalty phase in the trial began, Tuesday afternoon, with a victim impact statement read by Gonzalez to the jury as a variety of family photos were on display for the jury. “I went to bed that night not knowing my life would be changed forever,” she said, her voice choking with tears and emotion.

Gonzalez told the jury that as she lay wounded on the living room floor. “When I was shot I thought I was going to die,” she said. “I felt helpless and my body began to shake.”

Her husband was lying wounded on a couch and her daughter having just been shot twice in the face she resolved that she needed to live for her other daughter Alexandra. “I wasn’t able to do anything about it,” Gonzalez told the jury. “I couldn’t defend her.”

Gonzalez said her mind started spinning. “I was struck with the reality of burying my husband and my daughter,” she said through tears. “It was not supposed to be that way.”

Penalty phase

Raul and Brisenia Flores
Opening statements by defense counsel Jill Thorpe followed the victim impact statement by Gonzalez regarding the mitigation evidence, which could be virtually anything, but normally reflects challenges from a fiscal or social point of view faced by the defendant early in life. It could cover abuse or mistreatment of the defendant as a child or during her adult life.

It’s likely that this phase of the trial will stretch into next week. Defense counsel predicted they would conclude offering testimony by noon Friday. It’s conceivable, but unlikely that the jury will hear closing arguments in the penalty phase of the trial on Friday.

Thorpe reminded the jury that they had discussed the concept during jury selection three weeks ago of “mitigation that is sufficiently substantial” for the jury to recommend leniency when it comes to the sentence imposed on the two murder counts.

Thorpe reminded the jury that her client craved attention to the point that she founded her own border watch organization. “She called herself director of the minutemen,” she said. “She started an organization with 10 people. It was called Minuteman American Defense, but she leaves off the word defense so as to mislead people.”
Narcissistic personality

Thorpe said Forde suffers from narcissistic personality disorder where a person is “excessively preoccupied with issues of personal adequacy, power, prestige and vanity,” according to Wikipedia.

Thorpe also told the jury they would hear evidence regarding Forde’s family, which included incident of incest, molestation and rape. “Shawna was molested from age 5 until she was 12,” she said. She eventually began to engage in acts of child prostitution.”

Thorpe pointed out that her client was a prostitute at the same time the Green River killer, Gary Ridgeway, was actively looking for and killing prostitutes. While Forde did not have contact with Ridgeway, a close friend wasn’t so lucky. “One of her friends was a victim of the Green River killer,” she said.

Thorpe also revealed to the jury that Forde has a tested intelligence quotient (IQ) of 86, which puts her in the 18th percentile of those who are tested. “18 percent of people who take this test are not as smart as Shawna,” she told the jury. “Shawna is good at concrete thinking, but gets distracted by the details.”

Thorpe said the bottom line is that the jury will have sufficient reasons to grant leniency to Forde. “There are reasons how she became involved in this case and they are reasons to spare her life,” she said.

The first defense witness was private investigator and mitigation specialist Margaret DiFrank. The remainder of the afternoon was taken up listening to an interview DiFrank and Thorpe conducted with Forde’s birth mother Rene Caudle in Redding, Calif.

Aggravation phase

Tuesday morning, the jury heard arguments regarding two aspects of the evidence they had already heard during the first phase of the trial. “This is the time for you to decide if the state has proven aggravating factors in this case,” said Deputy County Attorney Rick Unklesbay. “The first is the degree of participation in these crimes. If you don’t find the defendant was a major participant then your job is done.”

Defense counsel Eric Larsen told the jury that the aggravation phase of the trial “is a gateway” to giving his client the death penalty. “If you have no intention of taking her life end the case now,” Larsen told the jury.

The jury was asked to determine, in respect to both victims, if Forde:
1.     Killed either victim;
2.     Attempted to kill either victim;
3.     Intended to kill either victim; or
4.     A major participant in the crimes that resulted in the deaths of either of the victims.

All 12 jurors returned verdicts that said Forde was a major participant in intending to kill both victims and a major participant in the events that led to the deaths of both victims.

The jury was also asked to consider evidence they had already heard in support of four aggravating factors alleged by the prosecution. “On the verdict forms for the first phase you were asked a number of questions similar to the aggravating factors,” Unklesbay said. “We’re asking you to consider them again because the defendant is entitled to a separate analysis.”

Those aggravating factors were:
  1. The defendant has been convicted of another offense in the United States for which under Arizona law a sentence of life imprisonment or death was imposable.
  2. The defendant has been or was previously convicted of a serious offense, whether preparatory or completed. Convictions for serious offenses committed on the same occasion as the homicide, or not committed on the same occasion but consolidated for trial with the homicide, shall be treated as a serious offense under this paragraph.
  3. The defendant committed the offense as consideration for the receipt, or in expectation of the receipt, of anything of pecuniary value.
  4. The defendant was an adult at the time the offense was committed or was tried as an adult and the murdered person was under 15 years of age, was an unborn child in the womb at any stage of its development or was seventy years of age or older.

The jury found that the first three factors were proven in regards to the death of Raul Flores and that all four were proven in regards to the death of Brisenia Flores.

Final verdicts

It is up to the jury to decide if the mitigation evidence they are currently hearing is relevant and if it is whether or not it is sufficient to persuade them to render a verdict of life in prison rather than death. If the ultimate verdict is death then the verdict is automatic.

If the verdict is life in prison then the judge is charged with deciding whether the defendant serves a sentence of natural life or life with the possibility of applying for parole after serving 25 calendar years or 35 calendar years in the event that the victim was younger that age 15. The judge normally makes that determination based upon testimony heard during the course of the trial, a presentence report compiled by the Pima County Adult Probation Department that contains information from the defendant and the victims, letters from victims and supporters of the defendant and statements that made be offered by either the victims or the defendant during the sentencing hearing.

Finally, all first-degree murder convictions that result in the death penalty are automatically appealed to the Arizona Supreme Court. The defendant receives new appointed counsel to represent them and the process begins of reviewing the transcripts of the trial looking for errors by the court and the attorneys. Eventually, a hearing is held before the Arizona Supreme Court and depending upon the decision of that body the case is either returned to superior court or it may be appealed to the federal courts. 

Pictures are courtesy of Gina Gonzalez and Jonathon LeFaive