ABC15 presses county attorney about ‘split’ in-custody death investigation
At a regularly scheduled press briefing, Maricopa County Attorney Rachel Mitchell deflected questions about how Phoenix police and the sheriff’s office made an unusual agreement to split the investigation of an in-custody death involving both law enforcement agencies.
Akeem Terrell died on Jan. 1, 2021, after he was placed and left in a prone position while handcuffed by Phoenix police and Maricopa County Sheriff’s detention officers.
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Terrell’s death, which is now part of a federal lawsuit, happened a year before Mitchell was appointed to replace Allister Adel as county attorney.
But MCAO’s director of investigations, Tom Van Dorn, who’s still part of Mitchell’s administration, signed off on a decision to let Phoenix and MCSO split the homicide investigation.
In the hours of the death, the two law enforcement agencies decided they would not interview each other’s officers.
MCAO cleared all officers of criminal wrongdoing in October 2021.
ABC15 asked Mitchell how she felt about how the way the investigation was handled by Phoenix and MCSO.
ABC15: You don’t talk to our guys, we won’t talk to your guys — do you think that’s appropriate and OK?
MITCHELL: Well, what I would say is this office does not direct law enforcement on how to direct investigations. Perhaps you should direct your questions to law enforcement agencies. We review what we’re given by law enforcement. We review their investigations, and if we feel like there is additional information that needs to be provided to us, we further it back to law enforcement.
ABC15: So, in a way, you direct law enforcement. You often have prosecutors go to critical incidents, they’re there to assist and guide officers.
MITCHELL: That’s actually not correct.
ABC15: Isn’t that what it says in your policies?
MITCHELL: We show up at scenes so we can understand the scene. As an active trial attorney, I went out to scenes so I could go out and get a better understanding of the scene. I’ve observed interviews, etc. But I’m not there to direct an investigation.
MCAO has a seven-page protocol for responding to deadly incidents involving law enforcement officers.
The protocol describes how the on-scene prosecutor should “collaborate,” “assist,” and “consult” with police investigators, including during interviews.
Overall, the protocol also states, “It’s the responsibility of the responding prosecutor to ensure that an investigative agency conducts an objective and bias free investigation.”
But MCAO did not send an on-scene prosecutor for Terrell’s death.
Instead, detectives contacted Van Dorn, who’s a former Phoenix police commander, and told him they would split the investigation, records show.
ABC15: But as someone who then reviews an investigation, is that something you would feel comfortable with as a prosecutor, knowing that they’ve decided not to interview certain people because they’re on a different team?
MITCHELL: That’s not what I heard you say. I heard there was a divvying up of the responsibilities of who would interview whom. If I got an investigation, and I felt like somebody else needed to be interviewed, I would certainly ask law enforcement to do that.
Phoenix police and MCSO both declined to comment on Terrell’s death and how the investigation was handled because of the ongoing lawsuit.
More than two years after the death, both agencies have not finalized internal investigations into whether any officers should receive discipline.
Contact ABC15 Chief Investigator Dave Biscobing at [email protected].
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