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Former DOC director Charles Ryan's case reveals imbalance of justice

Posted at 10:21 PM, Jun 10, 2022
and last updated 2022-06-11 01:21:46-04

Local defense attorneys say former head of the Arizona Department of Corrections Charles Ryan is facing reduced charges involving an armed confrontation with police compared to other defendants in similar cases.

The ABC15 Investigators looked at dozens of cases assigned to the now disbanded First Responders Bureau, which prosecuted cases where officers were victims in 2020 and 2021.

ABC15 focused on three cases. All three men had guns in their possession when police arrived on the scene. All three were indicted by a Maricopa County Grand Jury. None of the cases involved physical injuries to officers. However, the charges in Ryan’s case diverged from the other two.

Charles Ryan was charged with one count of unlawful discharge of a weapon for allegedly firing a gun in his home before police arrived. He also faces one count of disorderly conduct involving weapons for allegedly pointing a gun at officers assembled in front of his home. Both are class 6 dangerous felonies, which are low-level felony offenses punishable by about two years in prison.

The two men in the comparative cases were charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. These are class 2 dangerous felony charges because police officers are listed as the victims. The sentence for this offense can be 10 years or more in prison.

Other class 2 felonies include rape, attempted murder, and terrorism. The only class 1 felony in Arizona is murder.

According to the January 6 Tempe Police report, Charles Ryan’s wife called 911 to report he fired his gun and may have shot himself in their home. When police arrived, Ryan, the retired director of the Arizona Department of Corrections, was inside the home. Bodycam video showed Ryan opening the door from the house to the garage while he had a dark object in his hand. Police said it was a gun pointed at them, and they yelled for Ryan to drop the weapon. Officers fired at Ryan with bean bag rounds. Ryan did not shoot and closed the door. He later surrendered.

In one of the comparison cases, Brian Streeter, 35, was stopped by Phoenix police in November 2020 for allegedly fighting with his girlfriend in a crosswalk. Police bodycam video showed Streeter running away from officers, pulling out a gun, and putting it to his own head. As Streeter got close to a roadway with cars, officers shot him from behind. Streeter never fired his gun. Even so, Streeter was charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.

In the second comparison case, Samuel Denk had a gun in his lap when a Peoria officer approached him during a traffic stop in March 2019. The officer told Denk to put his hands on the steering wheel. Police bodycam video shows as Denk starts to raise his arms, the officer shoots him in the face.

“In an ideal world, every single defendant in the same or similar circumstances will be treated equally," said Derek Debus. Debus is a criminal defense attorney who used to work for the Maricopa County Attorney’s First Responders Bureau.

Debus was not directly involved in these three cases, but he is familiar with the laws and prosecution policies.

“The policy of first responders was that if you pointed a gun at a police officer, that's a class two dangerous felony, whether the police officer was on duty off duty, whether it was a road rage incident,” Debus said. “If there was a gun involved, and you pointed a police officer as a class two felony.”

The First Responders Bureau was disbanded in later 2021. When the Maricopa County Attorney's Office took the Ryan case to the grand jury in April 2022, Ryan's indictment came back without aggravated assault charges.

“It's a one-sided story presented in secret,” Debus said of the grand jury process. “Nobody knows what evidence is presented until that transcript is released only to the defense attorney. It's a very, very secret proceeding.”

Prosecutors can make charging recommendations and write suggested indictments for the grand jury, so we asked Maricopa County Attorney Rachel Mitchell for her perspective on the charging decisions.

“In terms of proving an aggravated assault, whether it's a gun pointed at a police officer or somebody else, you have to show as part of that crime that there is an intent to put the other person — assuming there's no injury — that there's an intent to put the other person in imminent fear of their life,” Mitchell said. “And absent proof that there is that intent that cannot be charged.”

Mitchell's take on the law differs from the description Maricopa County Judge Suzanne Cohen provided Brian Streeter during a settlement conference. Streeter’s defense was that he was experiencing a mental health crisis and was only pointing the gun at himself.

“You weren't threatening the cops; you were threatening yourself; it's a very valid argument,” Judge Cohen told Streeter in April. “The law doesn't require you to point a weapon you or anybody to point a weapon at someone for that person to be in fear. Okay?”

Judge Cohen also told Streeter in court, “The cops are limited in the moment, and they know you have a gun, and they're going to say to the jury that they were afraid. That's a pretty scary spot for you.”

Streeter took a plea deal last month and was sentenced to eight years in prison.

Samuel Denk fought his aggravated assault charge and went to trial in April. After the officer in the case admitted Denk never even grabbed the gun in his lap, a jury quickly returned a not guilty verdict.

Armando Nava, president of Arizona Attorneys for Criminal Justice, points out people could have trouble successfully landing a job or even renting an apartment in the future after even being charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon against an officer.

“Young black and brown people who are 19 or 20, they have a whole life ahead of them that county attorneys are saddling with a felony all because they might have pointed a gun indiscriminately the way that Mr. Ryan did,” Nava said.

Neither Nava nor Debus wants harsher charges for Charles Ryan, but they say others should be treated equally.

“We just want the same grace and understanding extended to all of our clients who will never — and have never gotten — the same benefits of the doubt that were extended to Mr. Ryan and these charging decisions,” Debus said.

ABC15 reached out to Ryan’s attorney seeking comment for this story. His attorney told us that he believes the police and prosecutors have acted professionally in his case. He said he does not think Ryan got special treatment but did say he believes some defendants in similar circumstances have been overcharged. Ryan is expected to plead not guilty at his arraignment later this month.

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