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How prosecutors decide to seek the death penalty

Evidence, and deference to victims can be factors
Posted at 7:15 PM, Jan 24, 2019
and last updated 2019-01-25 15:53:33-05

TUCSON, Ariz. - Pima County Prosecutors have an additional sixty days to decide whether they will seek the death penalty against the man charged with killing 6-year-old Isabel Celis and 13-year-old Maribel Gonzalez.

A judge granted an extension that allows the Pima County Attorney's Office to consider its decision until late March.

KGUN9 On Your Side's Craig Smith talked to a lead prosecutor on how they decide whether to try for the ultimate punishment.

Isabel Celis disappearance was a mystery for five years until her remains were found in a field in Avra Valley in 2017.

The remains of 13 year old Maribel Gonzalez were found in the same area in 2014, three days after she disappeared.

Christopher Clements is charged in both deaths. There's no decision yet on whether prosecutors will seek the death penalty against him.

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Prosecutor Jonathan Mosher talked to us about how prosecutors make that decision but we need to be clear: He can only speak in general, not about the Clements case or any other.

"So we've got to ensure defendants the right to a fair trial And so we just can't comment on pending cases at all."

Mosher says a death penalty decision does not hinge on whether a case is high profile. Instead prosecutors look for factors spelled out in state law and court decisions.

"Was the murder committed for monetary gain, or was there another serious offense for which the person was convicted before the the murder, you know, factors like cruel, heinous and depraved which have really received a lot of attention from the Arizona Supreme Court because there's a lot of ambiguity about those words, what makes a murder a cruel, heinous and depraved?"

Arizona state law spells out the requirements. You can read them in detail here and here.

The decision to go for death does not fall to one prosecutor.

"We have capital review panel and that consists of the County Attorney Barbara LaWall, her chief deputy, the chief criminal deputy, all of the bureau chiefs, the most experienced homicide prosecutors, anyone with death penalty experience."

Prosecutors consider victim's families too. They may prefer going for a life sentence because a death sentence means automatic appeals that could drag on for years.