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(Flickr/Joe Gratz)
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Arizona county’s use of volunteer prosecutor raises eyebrows

(Flickr/Joe Gratz)

PHOENIX — A small rural Arizona county has been using a volunteer prosecutor who says he’s been trying numerous cases with virtually no supervision, drawing objections from defense attorneys and prompting an appeals court to order a review.

Defense attorneys said La Paz County Attorney Tony Rogers’ appointment of James Schilder as a special deputy prosecutor needed approval by the county Board of Supervisors and that the unsupervised prosecutorial work puts defendants’ due-process rights at risk.

“It’s almost an abandonment of power and responsibility regarding those specific cases,” said Jeffrey Grynkewich, one of the defense lawyers.

Neither Schilder nor Rogers returned calls from The Associated Press for comment on their arrangement. But Schilder said in a court document that he was handling 26 criminal cases as a volunteer prosecutor appointed by Rogers in La Paz County in western Arizona across the Colorado River from California.

Schilder said his appointment gives him independent authority over how to prosecute cases without oversight by Rogers. He also told Superior Court Judge Samuel Vederman that he consults with Rogers but does not have to and that approval of his appointment by the county board was not necessary because he’s not paid.

Schilder worked as a prosecutor for at least two Arizona counties in the 1990s. He said he is now volunteering because he is financially able to do so, because Rogers’ office is underfunded and overworked and because he enjoys the work.

Schilder and another defender attorney unsuccessfully asked Vederman to disqualify Schilder from their clients’ cases, which involve such crimes as extreme DUI, criminal damage and possession of drug paraphernalia.

Schilder’s others cases include one in which a man was convicted of negligent homicide in a 2015 wreck on Interstate 10 east of Quartzsite.

Vederman said in his ruling denying the disqualification motions that Rogers seemed to have supervisory authority over Schilder because the county attorney could revoke Schilder’s appointment.

However, the state Court of Appeals said in a June 6 ruling on an appeal filed by the defense lawyers that actual supervision was not apparent.

The appellate court ordered the trial judge to re-examine whether Schilder is supervised by Rogers and to then reconsider previously denied defense motions to disqualify Schilder.

The appellate court said it is commendable for lawyers to provide free legal services.

“But when all responsibility for the prosecution of a criminal matter is ceded to an unelected special prosecutor, the resulting lack of accountability infringes the due-process rights of the accused, regardless of whether the special prosecutor is working for free,” Judge Diane Johnsen wrote for a three-judge panel.

The ruling sends the case back to Superior Court. It was not known whether Vederman, who is about to retire, or his replacement will handle the next steps.

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