Controversial Arizona Prosecutor Juan Martinez May Finally Get a Taste of Justice
Martinez faces allegations of courtroom shenanigans, leaking confidential information, and sexual harassment.
To the limited extent he's known outside Arizona, Maricopa County prosecutor Juan Martinez is associated with the high-profile and lurid case of Jodi Arias, who was convicted in 2013 of murdering Travis Alexander. Within the state, though, Martinez evokes tales of courtroom theatrics and allegations of leaking confidential information, tampering with evidence, lying to investigators, and sexual harassment. And while that's not uncommon behavior for prosecutors anywhere in the country, what is notable here is that after surviving several attempts to hold him to account, Martinez's luck may finally be running out.
"Juan is a victory-at-any-cost prosecutor driven by his own ego," Mel McDonald, a onetime judge and former U.S. Attorney for the District of Arizona told the Phoenix New Times in 2015. "He lies easily and he always overreaches, always plays to the mob mentality."
State officials seemed to agree. In 2016, several years after Arizona Supreme Court justices called out Martinez's conduct in open court, the court's Attorney Discipline Probable Cause Committee recommended that Martinez be placed on probation for a year for his unprofessional behavior. But Martinez dodged that bullet when a three-judge panel dismissed the case after less than a minute of deliberations.
"This is the fifth ethics case against Martinez to be dismissed since the Arias trial," Law & Crime reported at the time. "He still has one more pending, in which he's accused of giving information about the Arias case to a blogger."
Martinez was disciplined in 2018 by the Maricopa County Attorney's Office for unspecified professional standards violations. County Attorney Bill Montgomery "described both the offense and the punishment without really explaining either," the Arizona Republic noted last December. At the same time, more than 800 documents relating to investigations of Martinez's conduct by the state bar association were sealed at the county attorney's request.
While neither the disciplinary committee nor the county attorney were forthcoming about the nature of Martinez's misconduct, more details emerged over the years about allegations against him and many have come out as the latest formal complaint against him goes to the Arizona Supreme Court.
Martinez has been accused of leaking the name of Juror 17 in the Arias case, who held out against the death penalty, to a blogger with whom Martinez was sexually involved. Juror 17's identity was subsequently spread through social media and she then received death threats.
Martinez is also accused of improperly communicating with Juror 3, who had been dismissed from the Arias case, to measure the mood of the still-sitting jury.
He is then accused of lying to investigators about his conduct regarding both jurors.
Martinez has also been accused of knowingly introducing an altered audio recording into the trial of a man convicted of murdering a police officer. If proven, Martinez could be guilty of felonies.
Martinez is also accused of sexually harassing his subordinates. According to the complaint filed with the state bar, he told one law clerk that he "wanted to climb her like a statue," and another that wanted to put "a hit on her boyfriend so he could have [her] to himself." (This is apparently the conduct that got him disciplined at work.)
Evidence seems to be piling up against Martinez, but he's survived repeated investigations. He also works in a state that tolerates a lot of its prosecutors.
"Juan Martinez's behavior is not uncommon in the Maricopa County Attorney's Office," the ACLU of Arizona announced as it filed an amicus brief in the case against Martinez. "It is indicative of a decades-long culture of misconduct that flows from the top down, one that prioritizes winning convictions over pursuing fairness and executing justice."
That's true—but not much of a distinction. Prosecutors don't behave well anywhere in the United States.
Corey Williams was released from prison in Louisiana and his murder conviction vacated after prosecutors were found to have withheld "staggering" evidence that pointed to other suspects.
Terry Williams (no apparent relation to Corey) suffered for 30 years on death row after Philadelphia prosecutors withheld critical evidence in the 1986 murder case against him. Federal prosecutors "concealed documents that would have helped the late Stevens, a longtime Republican senator from Alaska, defend himself against false-statements charges in 2008," NPR noted in 2012.
Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance spent about $250,000 in asset forfeiture funds on high living, including a $2,800 per-night Parisian hotel. He remained unapologetic after the story broke last week and may legitimately be surprised at the objection, given how common such shenanigans are among his peers.
Revealing just how common such stories are, in 2013, Alex Kozinski, then chief judge of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, referred to an "epidemic" of prosecutorial misconduct.
"Each year, thousands, or tens of thousands, of innocent Americans are branded as criminals and sent to prison for an offense they did not commit" and 43 percent "of wrongful convictions are attributable to official misconduct," concluded a 2013 report from the Center for Prosecutor Integrity.
That's the problem. And as the saga of Juan Martinez demonstrates, a solution is hard to come by.
Voters have a role to play. Many top prosecutors are chosen at the polls, and while they've traditionally been indulged by an electorate more afraid of crime than protective of due process and basic decency, that may be changing. In recent years, reformers have won campaigns for district attorney's offices in races around the country by promising to rein-in excesses.
But voters are fickle and could easily return to their preference for law-and-order-at-all-costs prosecutors. More than faith in the electorate is needed to control abusive prosecutors. They need some skin in the game.
"Prosecutors who intentionally withhold exculpatory evidence resulting in a wrongful conviction should be prosecuted for obstruction of justice," argues Frederic Bloc, a federal district judge. He adds that prosecutors must be policed and disciplined by the bar and courts (the approach taken—so far unsuccessfully—against Martinez). He also says that prosecutors should be stripped of the absolute immunity that shields them from lawsuits for unethical behavior.
For now, prosecutors continue to enjoy immunity and rarely face criminal charges no matter what they do. Whether the existing apparatus is up to the task of imposing any sort of discipline will be tested as Juan Martinez is, yet again, asked to account for his conduct.