Free to Kill: Discord over domestic violence cases putting public at risk

KOLD News 10-10:30 p.m. recurring
Published: Oct. 6, 2022 at 10:35 PM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - The gruesome execution of a mother and her two sons last year is shedding light on what leaders call a breakdown in the criminal justice system that’s putting the public at risk in Pima County.

We’ve learned the murdered mother had told police her husband was capable of killing her and tried before.

John James, a violent felon, is sitting in jail accused of the crime.

He already had been arrested for domestic violence involving weapons against her 2 years before the killings.

The judge issued a low bond.

Leaders say that shouldn’t have happened.

This victim risk assessment reveals a high risk of danger for Willona White.

She feared for her life the day of the attack.

One of the questions police asked her “Do you believe he’s capable of killing you? She answered, Yes.

But the next day she convinces the judge to issue a low bond saying she reluctantly cooperated with police.

She then posted his bail.

Why would she do that?

Law enforcement leaders explain it’s common for that to happen.

“It’s not unusual for a victim to change their story or to pick up somebody the next morning who was taken to jail for assault them. We see that frequently,” Tucson Police Chief Chad Kasmar explained.

“They recant,” said Sheriff Chris Nanos, “they get their kids to try to recant and it just gets ugly.”

Kids are often factors in domestic violence disputes.

Records show police called the Department of Child Safety the day of the attack because one of White’s sons tried to intervene when he saw James pull out a handgun and shotgun while still yelling at his mother.

The allegations against James were substantiated for neglect.

DCS determined the two sons were safe with their mother and the case was closed.

This might explain why White recanted because she feared losing her children.

“That’s a very real concern,” said Anna Harper-Guerrero, Executive Vice President of Emerge, “I have known so many survivors for whom it’s something they cannot tolerate. So it seems easier to just say, ‘Never mind, I’m fine, nothing happened’ in an effort to keep their children with them.”

“That’s why the partnerships associated with this risk assessment protocol are really critical that the person is getting the support that they need in that moment and that we’re not just checking the boxes on a risk assessment tool,” she said.

It takes collaboration among the partners, but that’s fallen short systemwide -- a reason, leaders say, violent felons have been released on low bond and free to kill.

The Pima County Attorney’s Office has had the lead in bringing all the partners together to collaborate on any breakdown in the criminal justice system, including risk assessments.

But the leaders said that’s changed under Pima County Attorney Laura Conover.

“We struggle with communications with the County Attorney’s office,” said Nanos.

“The Pima County Attorney’s Office is uniquely situated to have the best feel of what’s going on,” Kasmar added.

“We were really intentional about monitoring how it was being impacted,” said Harper-Guerrero, “And I think in the last year, those conversations have stopped.”

Conover doesn’t see it that way.

“The collaboration that’s going on right now is really top notch,” she said.

There’s clearly a difference of opinions that the sheriff, chief and Emerge feel the public needs to be aware of and addressed.

Our investigation continues into the discord that’s putting public safety at risk.

And to note, John James maintains his innocence.