Monday, February 14, 2011

A Pima County Superior Court jury has returned verdicts of guilty on all counts

A Pima County Superior Court jury has returned verdicts of guilty on all counts in the double homicide trial of Minuteman American Defense founder Shawna Forde.
Shawna Forde (left) and attorney Jill Thorpe.

Forde, 43, is charged with two counts of first-degree felony murder in the deaths of Raul “Junior” Flores and his daughter, Brisenia, 9, as well as charges of one count of the attempted first-degree murder of Gina Gonzalez; 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.


It took the jury of one male and 11 females took approximately seven hours to reach their unanimous verdicts in the trial. After the jury was excused until Tuesday morning Gonzalez was observed crying as she spoke to Deputy County Attorneys Rick Unklesbay and Kellie Johnson. Forde reportedly had a look of disbelief on her face as the verdicts were read in the packed courtroom. Many of the observers in the courtroom were detectives who investigated the case for the Pima County Sheriff’s Department.

Testimony from prosecution witnesses in the case painted Forde as a wannabe black ops leader who proposed to finance her Blackwater-type operations by raiding suspected drug cartel operations in and around Arivaca in southern Arizona. Testimony showed that Forde intended to take the drugs, guns and money found during those raids to finance her continuing operations.

Testimony from defense witnesses was intended to convince the jury that while Forde talked a good game that all it amount to was just talk and that someone other than Forde was responsible for leading the fatal invasion of the Flores home in the early morning hours of May 30, 2009.

Next phases

Now that 12 members of the original 16-member jury have found Forde guilty of two counts of first-degree murder the trial moves to the second phase or the aggravation phase. The four alternate jurors who did not participate in deliberations will rejoin the jury to hear testimony in the next phase of the trial and if necessary the penalty phase.

The prosecution said Monday afternoon that here was no intention of introducing any additional evidence via testimony starting at 10 a.m. Tuesday morning. Thus, there will be argument from counsel for the state followed by argument from counsel for the defense followed by rebuttal argument by the state.

After receiving jury instructions the jury will be asked to consider evidence heard in the first phase of the trial in support of four aggravating factors alleged by the prosecution. Those factors are:
  •     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.
  •    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.
  •    The defendant committed the offense as consideration for the receipt, or in expectation of the receipt, of anything of pecuniary value.
  •    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.

Should the jury return verdicts that one of these aggravating factors has been proven beyond a reasonable doubt then Forde will be eligible to be sentenced to death. Those verdicts would trigger the third phase of the proceeding, which some call the mitigation phase and others refer to it as the penalty phase. During this phase the burden of proof rests with the defense.

It’s likely the jury will hear evidence that the defense hopes will mitigate or lessen the severity of the jury’s verdicts on the first-degree murder counts. This mitigation evidence 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.

Final verdicts

It is up to the jury to decide if the mitigation evidence 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. 
All pool photos are courtesy of Jonathon LeFaive