GLOBE — The tragic case involving local contractor Daniel Rawlings and his wife, Lacey Rawlings is scheduled to go to a jury on Jan. 4, 2022 in the Gila County Superior Court.
In anticipation thereof, the volume and tone of the litigation has risen, the latest fight concerns what a jury will be allowed to hear regarding how other drivers have treated “road closed’ signs that periodically appeared at the Bar X crossing of Tonto Creek. The location is where seven children (Rawlings’ own and nieces and nephews) and the Rawlings themselves were swept out of a large, military style, multi-purpose, 2.5 ton four wheel drive vehicle, called a “unimog” by flood waters on Nov. 29, 2019. Three children died. Colby, age 5 and Willa, age 6, were siblings. Austin Rawlings, age 5, was their cousin.
Daniel Rawlings was allegedly driving the vehicle. Court papers say that the family had crossed Tonto Creek near Punkin Center once that day without incident — they had gone there to get a tarp of some sort for their home. Lacey Rawlings was a passenger as were the seven children on board. The tragedy happened when attempting to cross again at the Bar X crossing. The adult Rawlings and four of the children survived.
The state filed a direct complaint against Daniel Rawlings accusing him of three counts of manslaughter and seven counts of child abuse. Lacey was charged with seven counts of child abuse for allegedly “permitting” the children to be endangered. Because the prosecutor brought the charges as opposed to a grand jury charging them by way of indictment, the law says the accused is entitled to have a judge hear the evidence of the allegations and determine if there is “probable cause” to support the charges. That is done in a preliminary hearing which was scheduled to be heard by Gila County Superior Court Judge Timothy M. Wright in Globe.
But the Rawlings’ lawyers (they each have their own) asked the judge to order the prosecutors to disclose what they had as evidence presumably so that the defense could prepare cross examination for the witnesses intending to testify at that preliminary hearing. The prosecutors, based on their understanding of court rules, objected arguing they would disclose what they had, but that they disagreed with the particular stage of a case they are required to do that. The judge disagreed with the state and ordered disclosure.
The state then brought the matter to the Arizona Court of Appeals which denied relief. The state then went to the Arizona Supreme Court which denied relief as well. That took many months to litigate and almost one year from the date of the tragedy, the prosecutor took the case to a grand jury anyway which found probable cause, thus nullifying the entire issue of the timing of disclosure for the preliminary hearing. Usually, delays in a case help the defense because memories of witnesses fade and witnesses move away.
The grand jury returned its indictment in November 2020, but while the disclosure issue was going up and down the appellate ladder, the prosecutor in August 2020 asked the court to revoke the Rawlings’ release (and hold them in custody) because there had been contact between the families. The state said that was a violation of the terms of their release, but the Rawlings had not signed the release documents yet so the court denied that motion as well.
Having struck out four times in row, the state then urged in a Nov. 25, 2020 motion that they had filed a complaint against Judge Wright in an unrelated case with the Arizona Commission on Judicial Conduct; therefore they argued, Judge Wright must take himself off the Rawlings’ case, called a recusal. It doesn’t appear that the commission did anything about the complaint against the judge and Judge Wright refused to recuse himself anyway.
Now the prosecutor seems very upset that Daniel’s lawyer, Bruce Griffen of Griffen & Stevens Law Firm, PLLC in Flagstaff has a conflict with another homicide trial in Coconino County during the time now set for the Rawlings’ jury trial in Gila County.
That happens often enough that court rules set forth how to handle such things. Generally the oldest case goes first and in-custody defendants get priority. Griffen’s client in Coconino County is in custody; the Rawlings are not. The rule also requires the two judges to confer about it and come to an arrangement.
But when Griffin filed the notice in Gila County about the conflict and asked the judges to confer, the prosecutor objected. First, the state has already issued subpoenas for the jury trial, and the notice of conflict and request for a judicial conference is “vague, incomplete and incoherent,” Gila County Chief Deputy Bradley M. Soos urged. With dripping sarcasm, Soos questioned Griffen’s statement of having “just” learned of the conflict and rhetorically asked, “By ‘just’ does counsel mean yesterday? The day before? Last week?" and that Griffen “seems to expect the court to believe he somehow forgot when his presumably biggest, most complex, and most high profile media case involving the death of three children was scheduled for trial.” Soos alleged that Griffen “Having realized after interviewing most of the State’s witnesses that he has no defense, counsel (Griffen) is already resorting to playing games...and will take any measures to delay the trial.”
Finally, in the most recent motion, Soos seized upon a line of questioning that “defense counsel” have employed in interviewing witnesses that “road closed” signs were regularly ignored at the spot by other drivers. Soos assumed that the defense intended to argue that there was selective prosecution of the Rawlings, which can be a defense under very limited circumstances. That’s when Lacey Rawlings’ lawyer Kathryn G. Mahady of the Law Offices of Aspen, Watkins & Diesel P.L.L.C. of Flagstaff explained that Lacey wasn’t even driving and their side has never said they intend to urge that defense. Further, that the conduct of other drivers is indeed relevant to counter the state’s allegation that Lacey “permitted” the endangerment of the children by being aware of a substantial risk and then disregarding it, which is the legal definition of “recklessness,” the mind set that the state has accused Lacy of having at the time.
Daniel has yet to respond to the prosecutor’s latest motion, and the court will decide the issue before a jury is selected. The next court date is October 25 for preliminary matters.