Warning: This story contains words and images that are graphic and cruel.
A Maricopa County Superior Court judge and her staff mocked and ridiculed people during hearings and trials by routinely emailing each other cruel and obscene statements, jokes, and memes.
The conduct happened in major felony cases, including high-profile capital murders.
Emails and internal records obtained by ABC15 show no one was off-limits: Defendants, their families, jurors, witnesses, attorneys, even other court employees and top court officials.
The judge was Erin O’Brien Otis.
She and her staff were also accused of regularly having inappropriate contact and communication with defendants, according to confidential complaints and sealed documents.
Multiple legal experts said the “astonishing and horrific” conduct by Otis and her staff clearly violates state ethical rules and judicial codes.
But Otis and her staff avoided any discipline and public accountability.
The Arizona commission that investigates judges dismissed a detailed complaint with evidence and scrubbed Otis’s name from their final findings.
During their investigation, Otis was allowed to resign.
Maricopa County Attorney Allister Adel then hired Otis as a high-level prosecutor in the office’s capital case unit.
Otis declined to be interviewed.
But she released a lengthy statement through an MCAO spokesperson. Otis wrote she has “always tried to act with integrity” and she takes “full responsibility” for what happened.
[Otis’s full statement is copied at the end of this report.]
Erin O’Brien Otis joined the bench as a Maricopa County Superior Court Commissioner in 2012.
She came from the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office where she specialized in prosecuting sex crime cases and was named "Prosecutor of the Year" in 2010, records show.
Governor Doug Ducey appointed Otis as an official judge in 2016.
At the time, Ducey said, “Her experience as a Commissioner on both the family law and criminal law benches will make her an outstanding addition to the court.”
But Otis would resign in 2020 while under investigation by the Arizona Commission on Judicial Conduct.
The case was prompted by information shared by Kelly Shafer, a former clerk with more than a decade of experience in Maricopa County Superior Court.
Shafer was transferred to Otis’s courtroom in 2017. She worked there until outing the conduct in 2019.
“I’m ashamed of myself for not coming forward sooner. I live with that every day,” Shafer told ABC15 in an interview. “I always told my kids that if you watched someone bullied and do nothing, you’re as bad as the bully.”
Shafer, who no longer works for the Maricopa County Clerk of the Superior Court, said she asked her bosses three different times to be transferred out of Otis’s courtroom.
“They told me if I wanted to leave, they were going to tell her it was at my request,” she said. “So I rescinded. All three times, I rescinded because I feared retaliation.”
In early 2019, she outlined the conduct in Otis’s courtroom to her supervisors in a series of detailed emails.
The information prompted the clerk’s office to file an official complaint with the judicial commission and notify then-Presiding Judge Janet Barton.
The complaint — heavily redacted by the commission to remove all names, dates, and case names and numbers — outlines many examples of alleged misconduct.
In addition to the memes and emails mocking people in court, it stated Otis and her staff manipulated the judicial performance review process, had daily ex parte communications with defendants, and even held a birthday party for the son of a six-time convicted defendant before his sentencing.
Dave Biscobing is exposing more about the birthday party and other allegations of improper contact with defendants. Watch the latest of the (dis)Honorable investigative series Monday on ABC15 News at 6.
ABC15 has independently verified many of the allegations in the complaint filed with the commission.
The station obtained a collection of emails and memes sent from 2017 through 2019, in addition to sworn statements and courtroom videos.
When asked what the public would think if they knew about the behavior going on, Shafer answered, “I would hope they would be disgusted by it.”
EMAILS AND MEMES
On September 7, 2017, Juror #30 was embarrassed.
She was seated with dozens of potential jurors during selection from a two-week long trial as Otis asked if anyone had any physical conditions that would make it difficult to complete their duty.
Juror #30 spoke up.
“My condition is embarrassing. I don’t really want to…"
Otis responded, “Okay, do you want to talk in private?”
After the courtroom was cleared of other jurors, the woman told Otis, court staff, and attorneys that she had a medical condition that gave her heavy and uncontrollable periods, making it impossible to sit through a trial that long.
The judge thanked the woman and dismissed her from jury duty.
“I appreciate you bringing that to our attention. I don’t want to put you in a situation where you are going to feel uncomfortable or anything like that,” Otis told her.
What Juror #30 didn’t know: Otis’s bailiff, Barbara Chavez, was busy finding a cruel and graphic meme to mock her medical condition.
The meme was emailed to Otis and other court staffers less than a minute after the juror left the room, records and video show.
Chavez is still employed by the Maricopa County Superior Court system. An ABC15 request for comment sent to a court spokesperson was declined.
The email is one of dozens of examples obtained by ABC15. The following messages are same ones sent to the commission for their investigation. They show the mocking and ridiculing of people in court occurred in multiple cases spanning over years.
[WARNING: GRAPHIC CONTENT]
Shafer, who was copied on many of the messages, said it was an “almost daily” occurrence.
“It was so natural for everyone that was there,” she said. “There’s no doubt in my mind this had been going on for a long time (before I got in Otis’s courtroom).”
On Nov. 15, 2017, during the trial of John Allen, who received a death sentence after being convicted of murdering
Chavez compared Allen’s family to movie characters, including cannibals from “The Hills Have Eyes” and “Chucky” from the horror film “Child’s Play.”
Arizona’s judicial ethic rules state that judges “shall perform the duties of judicial office, including administrative duties, without bias or prejudice.”
The rules also clearly state that judges are responsible for their staff in the same way.
While a collection of emails obtained by ABC15 show that Otis’s bailiff initiated many of the memes, the judge did respond and participate.
On October 11, 2018, Otis first initiated this email chain about what a defense attorney was wearing.
ABC15 has edited the below image due to its graphic nature.
ABC15 obtained courtroom video from the hearing as the emails were sent.
The footage shows Otis typing, look at her computer multiple times, and twice look and smile in her bailiff’s direction as the messages are being sent and received.
Shafer told ABC15 the mocking and ridiculing went beyond emailed messages and memes.
“At one point, they took these memes, they printed them out, they laminated them and hung them on the wall in the division. So when you walked into the judge’s division, there was a whole wall,” Shafer said. “And then finally, the court reporter went out and bought a little photo album book, and we’re like, please take them off your wall and put them in your little hatebook.”
“Hatebook” is what Shafer said she called the album — not necessarily what Otis and her staff called it.
In a statement, Otis “absolutely refutes” there was an “album of memes and photos.”
In March 2021, the Arizona Commission on Judicial Conduct dismissed the 2019 complaint against Otis.
ABC15 also confirmed the commission dismissed a 2017 complaint against Otis that alleged inappropriate communication with a defendant.
Under Arizona Supreme Court rules, records related to the commission’s investigations and deliberations are confidential.
The commission also does not hold any public meetings.
Final orders in dismissed cases are heavily redacted and anonymized. Below is the public order filed for the 2019 complaint against Otis.
The commission’s order acknowledged the improper memes and emails but did not address any of the other serious allegations alleged in the underlying complaint.
The commission’s rules and guidelines state that members have the discretion to release more information and records if it’s in the interest of justice or the public.
But an ABC15 request for additional material to better understand why the commission dismissed the complaints was denied.
ABC15 provided evidence of the memes, emails, and other material to multiple legal ethics experts.
“When you hear that happening at a state court, which is deciding whether or not people live or die, it’s astonishing and horrific,” said Benjamin Edwards, a law professor at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. “It’s not something I would ever hope to see."
Edwards said there are very clear violations of Arizona’s judicial and ethical codes.
Charles Geyh, a law professor at Indiana University, agrees.
“[It’s] behavior that you normally associate with high schoolers,” Geyh said. “It really does undermine the integrity of the operation.”
He added, “These are problems that signify somebody that’s not taking their role as seriously as they should, and that’s troubling… And I think it’s a good thing she’s off the bench.”
Experts also said they believe the State Bar of Arizona should have investigated Otis to determine her fitness as an attorney.
But state bar officials said they were never notified. “The Commission on Judicial Conduct did not send us any information related to their investigation of Erin Otis,” according to an emailed statement.
MCAO HIRES OTIS
While still under judicial investigation, the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office officially hired Otis in February 2020.
However, the former judge and MCAO had been negotiating and talking about terms for a job as a high-level prosecutor for months leading up to her hire.
County Attorney Allister Adel was involved, emails show.
On October 24, 2019, Otis directly sent Adel an email with her resume attached.
Experts said the timeline raises concerns about major conflicts of interest.
Otis was presiding over at least one capital case while talking with MCAO about a job prosecuting capital cases, records show. During that time, she ruled on significant motions and sentenced a capital defendant in November 2019. [ABC15 will report more on these conflicts in upcoming stories.]
As an MCAO prosecutor, Otis is currently assigned to at least a dozen murder and capital cases, records show.
OTIS WRITTEN RESPONSE
Otis declined ABC15’s interview request, which remains open.
Her full statement:
For more than 20 years as a public servant, I have always tried to act with integrity. I have always taken my ethical responsibilities seriously, as a lawyer and a judge. The allegations that you are referring to in your email, which were submitted to the Commission on Judicial Conduct three years ago, were serious and extremely troubling to me.
At the outset, I want to emphasize that all of these allegations were investigated by the Judicial Conduct Commission, and only one was sustained by it. Specifically, the Commission found that there were occasions where I failed to appropriately supervise my staff. The other allegations were unfounded and dismissed.
To be clear, at no time did I ever participate in ex parte communications. Nor was “an album of memes and photos” ever kept in my division. As for your inquiry about a birthday party in my courtroom, several years ago, my staff did provide a 2 year-old boy, who was present in the courtroom on his birthday with his parents (who were the defendant and victim), with a donut and I did suggest those present in the courtroom sing happy birthday to him. My staff also provided the child a toy to play with, as he was getting restless in the courtroom waiting. This family had previously been in my courtroom, on multiple occasions, with multiple children, due to the lack of childcare available to them. Attorneys representing both sides were also present and no one raised any concerns.
During my eight years as a judicial officer, I do not claim do have always done everything perfectly. In retrospect, the situation relating to the emails and/or memes over email should have been discouraged and stopped. I admit that I did not handle that in the best way and have taken full responsibility for it. I have also taken full responsibility for anything I said over email that lacked professional boundaries.
As noted above, I was a Superior Court Judicial Officer for eight years. During that time, I received excellent judicial performance review scores. These events that occurred several years ago constituted a very brief, and limited example of my judicial tenure. I took responsibility for them quite some time ago.
As for the allegations regarding “an album of memes and photos”, a birthday party in my courtroom, or ex parte communications with either side, I absolutely refute the claims, and did so at the time they were made. An investigation by the Commission on Judicial Conduct has cleared me of any wrong-doing with regard to those allegations.
I encourage you to review the attached confidential letter sent to me by the Commission on Judicial Conduct, after a very lengthy and diligent investigation, and the foregoing statement from me, prior to any report regarding this matter.
The attached confidential letter from the Commission is below.
[EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first report in ABC15’s ongoing “(dis)Honorable" investigation. Upcoming reports will include expert analysis, a lack of transparency and public accountability with judicial oversight, and MCAO’s hiring of the judge. Chief Investigative Reporter Dave Biscobing can be reached at Dave@ABC15.com.]