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Defense claims woman falsely charged for Uber crash

Posted at 10:21 PM, Jul 01, 2022
and last updated 2022-07-02 01:21:27-04

PHOENIX — In a new letter to Maricopa County Attorney Rachel Mitchell, defense attorneys continue to allege that police and prosecutors presented clearly false information to a grand jury in order to criminally charge the back-up operator of a self-driving Uber test car after a deadly crash in March 2018.

Attorneys for Rafaela Vasquez claim she was not watching a TV show on her personal cell phone but instead monitoring work-related chat messages on her work phone.

“The claim that our client, a Trans woman and an alleged felon, was watching television instead of the road was salacious and incendiary enough to ignite a firestorm of publicity,” according to Vasquez’s attorneys, Marci Kratter and Albert Morrison. “The problem with that claim, however, was that Ms. Vasquez was not watching The Voice program, or any other program, on her phone. Your assigned prosecutors have refused to address the central fallacy of their case.”

The letter was sent on June 13, 2022 and was prompted by an MCAO announcement to fire veteran prosecutor April Sponsel.

Sponsel, who was not involved in the Uber prosecution, was fired for a pattern of extreme charging, failing to review evidence, and misleading grand juries.

RELATED: MCAO ignored warnings about prosecutor; 'They bred this monster'

The most public example was exposed in ABC15’s “Politically Charged” investigation, which revealed Sponsel colluded with Phoenix officers to invent a gang and charge protesters as members.

In the letter, attorneys claimed the same type of issues are happening in the prosecution of Vasquez.

“We believe that the prosecutors in this case have failed to exercise the required diligence and discretion in the same ways that Ms. Sponsel failed to do so,” according to the letter.

The defense attorneys’ claims about police and prosecutors falsely alleging that Vasquez was watching a TV show before the crash was first raised in a court motion last year and reported by the Phoenix New Times.

A judge denied the Motion to Remand, which would have required prosecutors to take the case back to the grand jury.

In a statement for this report, MCAO wrote, “The issues you are raising have already been litigated and ruled on by the Judge in this case. As you will see in the attached minute entry, the defendant’s motion to remand to the grand jury was denied. This office believes, and attorney ethical rules dictate, that trials are to be conducted in a courtroom before a judge and jury and not in the media. This not only threatens the due process rights of defendants but undermines the criminal justice system.”

Tempe Police also declined to comment.

Contact ABC15 Chief Investigator Dave Biscobing at Dave@ABC15.com.