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

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Posted at 5:37 PM, Jun 10, 2022
and last updated 2022-06-29 11:31:21-04

PHOENIX — UPDATE: The Maricopa County Attorney's Office confirmed that April Sponsel was issued an official letter of termination the week of June 27, 2022.

April Sponsel was an award-winning prosecutor inside the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office.

She was handpicked to join the newly-created First Responder Bureau, which handpicked 2020 protest cases to aggressively prosecute.

But after ABC15’s “Politically Charged” investigation exposed widespread corruption in multiple protest cases, top MCAO officials shucked responsibility and blamed Sponsel by placing her on leave and under investigation.

POLTICALLY CHARGED: ABC15 EXPOSED MCAO, PHOENIX PD CORRUPTION

The office began the process to officially fire Sponsel this week.

Sponsel, who’s spent nearly two decades years at MCAO, claims the office is making her the “scapegoat in order to blunt the criticism” from ABC15’s reporting.

Some of her harshest critics think she’s right.

“I agree. They scapegoated her,” said Marci Kratter, a defense attorney who’s spent years and many cases opposite of Sponsel. “They bred this monster. They taught her how to do it. They nourished her on it. They encouraged it. They allowed it. And then, they threw her under the bus when they get caught.”

On June 6, Deputy Chief Paul Ahler issued Sponsel a 14-page “Notice of Intent to Dismiss” – a summary of why MCAO feels the veteran prosecutor should no longer keep her job.

The investigation into Sponsel began in March 2021.

It was weeks after ABC15 exposed that MCAO prosecutors colluded with Phoenix police officers to falsely charge dozens of protesters in multiple cases.

The most egregious example occurred following a protest on October 17, 2020, when officials invented a fake gang and then charged protesters as members.

The dismissal notice highlights widespread misconduct in that case and problems in four others handled by Sponsel in 2020 and 2021.

“Based on your extreme overcharging and lack of appropriate follow-up and review in the cases discussed above, I cannot trust that you are able to do the work of a (prosecutor),” Ahler wrote. “The fact that your administrative interview demonstrated no self-reflection or any recognition that you made mistakes, even knowing that you indicted an innocent person, reaffirms my decision that termination is the only appropriate option.”

Ahler recently joined MCAO as Chief Deputy under newly-appointed County Attorney Rachel Mitchell, who took over after Allister Adel’s resignation.

Mitchell moved to fire Sponsel within her first two months officially leading the office. It's not clear why the internal investigation remained open for more than a year under Adel.

Defense attorneys, and even some current and former MCAO prosecutors believe the notice highlights a disturbing attempt by MCAO to whitewash its broader role in enabling Sponsel’s misconduct.

“This is not a rogue prosecutor,” Kratter said. “This is the culture at the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office.”

Public defender Katie Gipson-McLean, who represented on of the people falsely charged in a protest case, called out MCAO leaders online following a previous ABC15 report about Sponsel’s pending termination.

“I reported April to The Bar over a year ago for her conduct in the 10/17 case,” Gipson-McLean tweeted. “She is responsible for securing the indictments, it was her bar number attached. However, top DCAs knew and did nothing, and she is getting thrown under the bus to save face for everyone else.”

Former prosecutor Derek Debus, who worked at MCAO in 2020, responded to Gipson-McLean’s tweet by posting, “Facts. Big Facts.”

Multiple defense attorneys shared emails sent to MCAO supervisors over the years about Sponsel’s conduct and charging decisions but said those concerns were ignored.

In one example, attorneys for activist Bruce Franks Jr., who was falsely charged after an August 9, 2020 protest, sent detailed information to Sponsel’s supervisor outlining problems with their case.

The defense attorneys wrote they felt her conduct may be an issue for the State Bar to look at.

In response, MCAO Division Chief Vince Goddard emailed Sponsel this reply: “If he believes that’s what you did, he is obligated to file the bar complaint. His problem is if he says that and DOESN’T file one. That’s when he’s acting unethically.”

Sponsel emailed her boss back with a smiley face emoji.

Beyond the protest cases, the dismissal notice gave specific details of problems with overcharging a lack of evidence review in multiple cases.

In a 2020 case, Sponsel is accused of overcharging a man named Charles Walker, who resisted arrest after a shoplifting call.

During the arrest, an officer got a small cut on his hand.

He didn’t know how it happened, but the suspect had been holding a pen. So Sponsel charged the man with Aggravated Assault with a Deadly Weapon, a class 2 felony.

“Your charging decision treated Walker the same as a person who shoots and officer or stabs and officer with a knife,” Ahler wrote in the notice. “If convicted, your charging decision subjected Mr. Walker, a defendant with no prior felony convictions, to a mandatory prison term of no less than ten and a half years – with no possibility of early release – for causing a minor injury to an officer’s hand.”

In the handful of cases highlighted in her dismissal notice, Sponsel was accused of misrepresenting facts to grand juries and misleading them.

Defense attorneys told ABC15 it’s not a surprise and represents problems they’ve constantly seen in Sponsel’s cases throughout her career.

At a press briefing Wednesday, ABC15 asked Mitchell if the office plans to review any more of Sponsel’s past cases.

“Obviously, that’s an active personnel matter. So, I have to be careful not to discuss the details of that,” Mitchell said. “If there is additional cases in the past, beyond the time (Sponsel) was in the First Responder Bureau, that people have concerns about or want us to look at those, we can certainly do that through the Prosecution Integrity Unit.”

Kratter told ABC15 that’s too passive and that MCAO has an affirmative duty to disclose Sponsel’s misconduct for every past and present case.

“It’s completely inadequate,”Kratter said. “If I were county attorney, I would be having the office pull every case that Sponsel ever touched. I would treat it almost like a product defect, a product liability case. And I would send a letter to every defendant and every defense attorney and say, ‘We have now learned one of our prosecutors is unethical and you may be impacted by that.’”

Sponsel’s civil attorney has not responded to ABC15’s requests for comment about the dismissal letter.

She filed a lawsuit against Maricopa County earlier this year, alleging she was defamed by Adel and other top officials. The lawsuit claims that Sponsel had a “stellar reputation” and exceptional evaluations.

But that changed because of the fallout from ABC15’s reporting.

“Soon after the Violent Protest Case Charges had been dismissed, Sponsel realized that she would become Adel’s scapegoat in order to blunt the criticism leveled by the news media, to absolve herself of any personal responsibility for bringing the charges, and to blunt the politically damaging consequences of making or approving the decision to bring the charges,” according to the lawsuit.

Other records reviewed by ABC15 show Sponsel was a go-to prosecutor inside MCAO over the years.

The office often touted her experience and used Sponsel to hold special training classes to teach police officers how to testify.

“Sponsel was training police officers how to testify,” Kratter said. “And the bench, the Superior Court of Maricopa County, was allowing her to use courtrooms so she could teach them to testify properly. This is as bankrupt as it gets.”

The dismissal notice against Sponsel also wrongly presents MCAO employees as a proactive and righteous force in holding her accountable for the protest cases and correcting the injustice.

“Without intervention from others in this office, it is unknown how long (a protest defendant arrested on October 17, 2020) would have been indicted before you got around to reviewing the exculpatory evidence you had,” Ahler wrote.

MCAO officials defended Sponsel’s charges in advance of ABC15’s “Politically Charged” investigation.

It was only after the station published secret grand jury transcripts and broadcast body camera and surveillance footage that the county attorney’s office took any action, according to internal text messages, emails, and other correspondence obtained by ABC15.

Contact ABC15 Investigator Dave Biscobing at Dave@abc15.com.