At a procedural hearing Monday, an attorney for a local man being tried for a double murder was accused by the county’s prosecutor of violating ethical standards for comments he made to the media regarding the case.
Public Defender James Mannato, legal counsel for Jose Valenzuela, appeared in a Pinal County courtroom with his client July 17 for a status review hearing when the allegations of unethical conduct were lodged by special prosecutor Gary Husk.
Husk alleged statements made to a Pinal County newspaper regarding certain “sealed” subpoenas exceeded the ethical boundaries of legal counsel. The statements made to the newspaper, Husk believes, could have an impact on the objectivity of the public and potential jurors.
“We can try this matter in the press, or we can try this matter in the courtroom,” Husk said while addressing the court on Monday.
Mannato responded to the allegations of ethical violations by drawing attention to the fact then-Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu made public remarks about Valenzuela’s guilt at the time of his arrest. This, Mannato said, did much more to prejudice public opinion of his client than any of his statements to the newspaper.
“I have been trying to find ways to counteract that [Babeu’s statements] ever since,” Mannato said.
Mannato stated he is within the boundaries of section 3.6(b) of the American Bar Association’s Model Rules of Professional Conduct, which states legal counsel will not make any statements to media if the statements “have a substantial likelihood of materially prejudicing an adjudicative proceeding in the matter.”
Specifically, Mannato invoked subsection (b)(2) of that rule, which states information that is part of the public record can be discussed with media.
Husk, undeterred by the explanation, expressed his intent to file a motion to have the subpoenas unsealed.
In an exchange between the two lawyers outside the courtroom Mannato said he never asked for the subpoenas to be sealed and anything discussed with the reporter was available in the case file.
Nonetheless, Husk claimed to have never seen the subpoenas, which were in regard to phone records of one of the victims, Michael Careccia.
Though unwilling to make a public comment about the allegations of unethical conduct, Mannato did state his intent to possibly file a motion to have the death penalty taken off the table.
Citing a pending case with the Arizona Supreme Court that aims to establish a uniform application of the death penalty in all Arizona counties, Mannato plans to follow the line of argument that capital punishment is unequally applied across counties and thus unconstitutional in its current form.
“You have a situation where you could commit the same exact crime in the same circumstance in one county and find yourself looking at the death penalty,” Mannato said “But, if you do it in the poorer county you won’t because they don’t have the funds to fund the prosecution of capital cases, because it’s very expensive.”
The next status review hearing was set for Aug 28 at 3 p.m. in Judge Kevin White’s courtroom in Superior Court in Florence.
A tentative trial date has been set for Jan. 23, 2018, at 9 a.m. at the same location.