ST. JOHNS—Accused juvenile murder suspect Joshua Richardson appeared last Wednesday in the Apache County Superior Court for a settlement conference. He was accompanied by his attorney Cindy Castillo from the Valley and a couple who are believed to be his grandparents.
Richardson looked very young — pale and chained at his wrists and ankles. He is being held in a Coconino County juvenile facility, and has been charged as an adult of first degree murder in the death of Terrilynn Collins (then 54) at the Collins’ family retreat in Concho Oct. 3, 2017. Richardson is also charged with burglary, two counts of aggravated assault and one count each of attempted armed robbery and attempted vehicle theft. He has pleaded not guilty.
Richardson, then 14, allegedly went to the Collins’ residence in 2017 and shot Collins in the face during a burglary. Collins died at the scene.
Richardson also faces aggravated assault charges for allegedly putting Collins’ daughter and her roommate in “reasonable apprehension of physical injury” while using a “revolver handgun, fixed blade knife, and hockey stick,” according to a charging document dated Jan. 4, 2018. The attempted armed robbery concerns a Collins’ daughter; the attempted vehicle theft concerns a second Collins daughter.
The Arizona Department of Public Safety handled the investigation. The case has been delayed as both sides continue to supplement their investigations and while Richardson went through a competency evaluation; he was found competent to stand trial. He turned 16 last month.
A settlement conference is a device intended to explore a resolution of a case short of going to trial. By court rule, it must be presided over by a judge other than the judge who will preside over a defendant’s jury trial, and there is a good reason for that. Parties are encouraged to be very candid in settlement conferences. The settlement judge will hear from the parties their respective views of the strengths and weaknesses of the case and will often hear facts during the conference that the trial judge will not know until the jury hears them in open court.
It is true that a jury, not the judge, will decide the question of guilt or innocence, but it is considered bad form and may invite the appearance of impropriety for the settlement conference judge to make legal rulings during the trial such as the admittance of evidence or to rule on procedural matters such as objections.
In this case, Apache County asked Navajo County Superior Court Robert Higgins to handle the conference and it looked like they got their money’s worth. The state was represented by Deputy County Attorney Garrett Whiting and the deceased’s widower, Earnest Collins, Jr., himself a lawyer, appeared with supporters and the victim advocate. The groups were led into separate rooms adjoining the main courtroom at the historic Apache County Courthouse.
Judge Higgins shuttled between the rooms for a marathon session — over three hours. Settlement conferences hold the risk that one side or the other will be strong-armed into a settlement, but Higgins seemed gracious, fair and polite to everyone. During the rainy afternoon, there were glimmers of hope that the case would settle. The facial expressions of defense counsel and those in Richardson’s group seemed optimistic as the conference progressed. Towards the end, cheery chatter and some laughter could be heard from the victims in the prosecutor’s room and the few observers stlll waiting in the main courtroom seemed hopeful that the parties would come back in with a plea agreement.
But that was not to be.
At 4:25 p.m., the judge took the bench and announced that the parties were “making some progress” but that there was no settlement. He commended both sides for their candor and good faith efforts and set a new date for a status conference. The judge remarked that if either side wanted another settlement conference, he would clear his schedule in Navajo County and be available because this is an “important case,” he said. Indeed it is. A 54 year-old mother and wife lost her life, and a now 16 year-old boy is facing life in prison.
The status hearing is set for September 30.