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Suspect in Phoenix jail officer’s death could face 1st-degree murder charge

Officer Gene Lee (Maricopa County Sheriff's Office)

PHOENIX – The inmate accused of fatally attacking a Phoenix jail detention officer this week could face a first-degree murder charge – and possibly a death sentence — because of evidence the attack was premeditated.

Daniel Davitt, who was being held on child molestation charges, filed a civil rights complaint against Maricopa County Sheriff’s Officer Gene Lee two months before Tuesday’s deadly incident at the Lower Buckeye Jail.

“The fact that the inmate filed a federal lawsuit against Lee and MCSO for sexual misconduct could be used against the inmate for motive,” KTAR News 92.3 FM legal expert Monica Lindstrom said Friday.

The lawsuit acknowledges that MCSO found Davitt’s complaints unsubstantiated.

Lindstrom said the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office could seek the death penalty against Davitt, but it’s unlikely.

An MCAO spokesperson told KTAR News the case is still under investigation by law enforcment. Prosecuters will review the case for a charging decision after it has been submitted, the spokesperson said.

Davitt was initially charged with one count of aggravated assault on detention personnel after he allegedly threw Lee to the ground Tuesday. The officer was knocked unconscious when his head slammed into the concrete floor.

Lee immediately received medical treatment and was transported to Phoenix’s Banner University Medical Center. He never regained consciousness and died the next day.

During Davitt’s initial court appearance, the prosecutor called the incident “a premeditated, unprovoked attack.”

According to the charging documents, the entire incident was captured on video. The probable cause statement says Davitt was conversing with Lee before grabbing him by the throat, pushing him backward and tripping him.

During a press conference Wednesday, while Lee was in a coma, Sheriff Paul Penzone said he will do everything he can to ensure that Davitt is convicted and “sees the longest sentence practical” for the attack.

In a lawsuit filed in August, Davitt claimed his rights under the Prison Rape Elimination Act were violated because Lee looked at him inappropriately while he was using the bathroom in December 2018.

Davitt has been in custody since 2017 following his arrest on charges of child molestation and sexual conduct with a child. His lawsuit says he’s needed mental health treatment for PTSD symptoms caused by Lee staring at him for 10-15 seconds.

In the handwritten lawsuit, Davitt says he filed grievances with MCSO about Lee. The suit says MCSO ruled that his complaints were unfounded. Lee is one of eight defendants in the suit, with the others accused of permitting Lee to continue working in Davitt’s housing unit.

MCSO did not immediately respond to requests for substantiation of information in Davitt’s lawsuit.

Lee was a six-year veteran of MCSO and volunteered for the agency’s posse before becoming a full-time employee. He left a career as an engineer to work in law enforcement.

“He wanted to be a part of serving the public, but he also wanted to be part of an organization and a profession where he felt there was camaraderie, that he felt was a common mission to serve others,” Penzone told KTAR News’ Bruce St. James and Pamela Hughes Show on Thursday.

Davitt was transferred to the Pinal County jail system after the attack.

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