Maricopa County attorney candidate Julie Gunnigle calls for 'common sense reforms'
Julie Gunnigle stood with the family of Dion Johnson, describing her rival's decision not to prosecute the state trooper who killed him as a political move.
She criticized the death of a man held in custody on hot asphalt for nearly 6 minutes before he died, saying that demanding accountability from law enforcement is good governance.
Gunnigle, a Democrat running for Maricopa County attorney, has made what she calls common-sense reforms to the criminal justice system a key focus of her campaign.
A prosecutor in Illinois and Indiana before she returned to her native Arizona, she hopes to connect with voters in a year when they are weighing issues such as police excessive use of force, harsh sentencing and disparate treatment for people of color.
The race between Gunnigle and Republican Allister Adel has attracted national attention.
In August, voters made her the first female county attorney candidate for the Democratic party since at least 1996.
Either she or Adel will become the first woman ever elected by voters to the office, the third-largest prosecutorial agency in the country. Adel was appointed by the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors in October 2019 after longtime County Attorney Bill Montgomery was named to the Arizona Supreme Court by Gov. Doug Ducey.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona is spending $850,000 to make voters aware of the race and educate them on the issues. The organization doesn't support or endorse candidates, but Analise Ortiz, campaign strategist for the ACLU, said the organization believes much is at stake. The person elected will help determine charging decisions and influence how many people go to prison.
"We’re going to ensure voters understand the power their vote for county attorney has to bring about much-needed change," Ortiz said.
Singer John Legend endorsed Gunnigle in September. Legend performed during the Democratic National Convention and created an initiative in 2014 called FREEAMERICA, which works for criminal-justice reform and an end to mass incarceration.
Gunnigle has received the support of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Arizona, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, state Rep. Reginald Bolding, Pima County Attorney-elect Laura Conover, Nevada Attorney General Aaron D. Ford and others.
Steven Slugocki, chairman for the Maricopa County Democratic Party, said Adel "has perpetuated the misconduct, corruption, and scandal that has plagued the office." He told The Republic the party is "firmly behind" Gunnigle's campaign.
"She is running to transform the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office into an institution that is tough, smart, and fair," he said. "Most importantly, we're proud that our candidate will prioritize addressing systemic issues to keep our community safe and save us $250 million a year."
Pursuit of public service
Gunnigle or Adel will be the first woman elected to the office. Whoever wins will be among the few female county attorneys in the country.
According to a 2019 report by the Reflective Democracy Campaign, 24% of elected prosecutors in the country were women and 73% were white men.
Gunnigle was born in Phoenix and graduated from Horizon High School.
Gunnigle said her mom, a Phoenix public school teacher, inspired her three children to learn and taught them the importance of public service. This parental guidance led her to pursue a career in law, Gunnigle said.
Gunnigle said she had hoped to attend the University of Chicago but attended Northern Arizona University for financial reasons. She graduated with a degree in chemistry.
A professor encouraged her to apply to law school instead of working in a lab as a way to engage in public service.
A Democrat, Gunnigle wouldn’t describe herself as a “progressive” or a “moderate.”
“I’m not sure that I fit in any of those sorts of boxes,” she said.
Gunnigle said the issues Democrats find important don’t fit in any particular box because they reflect a common-sense approach to criminal justice reform.
According to public records, Gunnigle was registered as a Republican in Arizona in 2012. She changed her party affiliation to Democrat in 2018.
Gunnigle told The Republic she registered as a Republican so she could vote in the primary because she was practicing strategic voting.
This practice, also called tactical voting, is used when voters believe their preferred candidate is unlikely to win. A person may vote for another party's candidate to decrease the chances of a particular outcome.
In Arizona, a voter can't cast a ballot in the presidential preference election unless they are affiliated with that party.
"I've been a Democrat in heart my entire life," Gunnigle said. "My husband and I spent our honeymoon flipping a congressional district in northwest Indiana."
Gunnigle said she was able to vote against President Donald Trump twice, unlike other Democrats. She said if any voters have questions or doubts they should look at her record.
"I want them look at my record at fighting for the taxpayers when people steal their money," she said. "I want them to look at my record for fighting for Arizona's children. I want them to look at my record at fighting for a fully funded public education for everyone."
Adel's campaign called Gunnigle a radical and a "Chicago-style politician" on a website comparing the two candidates.
Marcus Ismael, Gunnigle's communications director, said Adel is worried about what voters will think of her record.
"Adel is worried that Arizona voters will find out her radical record on stripping women of their reproductive rights, her bigoted comments on the LGBTQ+ community, and mismanagement of the County Bar Association to realize she’s a Texas transplant that is all hat and no cattle," he told The Republic.
Prosecutorial experience in the Midwest
Gunnigle graduated from the University of Notre Dame law school and received the Edward F. Barrett Award, which is presented to students for outstanding achievement in the art of trial advocacy.
Recent U.S. Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett was one of Gunnigle’s professors and the commencement speaker at her graduation in 2006.
Gunnigle told The Republic she thinks Barrett will move the Supreme Court to the edge of outlawing abortion rights.
"It's a real possibility, and it's incredibly scary for all of us who are raising families here in Arizona," Gunnigle said.
Arizona has laws banning abortion and birth control on the books that were created before Roe v. Wade. Gunnigle told The Republic she would not prosecute people for abortions or for using birth control if the landmark case is overturned.
Gunnigle worked as a prosecutor in Indiana and Illinois.
She was a prosecutor for the Elkhart County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office from 2006 to 2007. Gunnigle said she gained a lot of experienced at the small prosecutors office. She was able to work on homicide, juvenile, domestic violence and sexual abuse cases.
Gunnigle said she realized she had the skills to talk to domestic violence victims in a way that didn't traumatize them and to listen to children explain what happened in cases concerning sexual abuse.
The office had a series of rapid promotions that allowed her to work in felony court for most of her time and be the acting head of the juvenile division.
After leaving Elkhart County, she was a solo practitioner before working in Illinois. She was a prosecutor for the Cook County Assistant State's Attorney Office from 2009 to 2011.
She said she worked on financial crimes and public corruption cases and assisted other prosecutors on a variety of cases, including cold cases and fraud.
Gunnigle said she was able to work with a committee that helped rewrite guidelines to better serve human trafficking victims.
She said she learned how ill-equipped the criminal justice system is when helping people with mental and physical health issues.
"It is unacceptable that they be ignored by the criminal justice system and not have those sorts of resources available," she said.
Gunnigle returned to Arizona in 2011. She unsuccessfully ran for the state Legislature in 2018.
A bruising primary battle
After a heated Democratic primary race, Gunnigle outpaced her two opponents, Bob McWhirter and Will Knight, to win the party’s support.
In the weeks leading to the primary, an anonymous memo was posted online questioning Gunnigle's work in Cook County that prompted a lawsuit by a former defendant.
In 2013, a federal lawsuit was filed by a former defendant in a criminal case that Gunnigle oversaw with other prosecutors in the Cook County State's Attorney's Office.
Annabel Melongo filed the lawsuit against Gunnigle, the other prosecutors, the state’s attorney’s office, law enforcement, court reporters, a forensic science expert, the state's assistant attorney general and the attorney general.
She accused officials of conspiracy, unreasonable seizure, false arrest and imprisonment, malicious prosecution, emotional distress, consumer fraud and deceptive business practices, and breach of fiduciary duty. The lawsuit also accused officials of violating her rights of free speech, equal protection, freedom of press and petition.
The judge ruled that Gunnigle and another prosecutor were entitled to absolute immunity on Melongo's computer-tampering charges. However, the judge ruled Gunnigle and the other prosecutors were not entitled to absolute immunity for Melongo’s eavesdropping charges.
The lawsuit was dismissed last year after a settlement was reached.
Melongo's lawyers declined to speak with The Republic.
In an open letter responding to the memo, Gunnigle told voters prosecutors are hired to make “tough calls.”
"I can tell you that through my career I’ve encountered several cases where every available choice is imperfect," she wrote. "I have always tried to make the best possible decision based on the information available and with the interests of justice and public protection in mind."
Fighting for families, teaching law
Gunnigle started her own practice when returning to the Valley and got involved in the community through teaching and public service.
She began teaching as a professor at Arizona Summit Law School in 2012 and continued until 2017. The law school is now closed.
"What I really enjoyed about teaching was they were so committed to closing the justice gap in Arizona," she said of her students.
At Summit, she met Whitney Walker, a Democratic candidate in the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors District 3.
Walker said Gunnigle was a great mentor who taught her to appreciate the U.S. Constitution and the power of words. The former student said she almost became a prosecutor because of Gunnigle but ultimately chose a career in public policy.
"She is more than equipped to not only educate the general public about the law but also advocate for criminal justice when it is needed, in a fair and just manner," Walker said.
Jeromy West, an attorney who practices parental law and criminal defense, also had Gunnigle as a professor and was a law clerk at her practice.
He said Gunnigle was able to explain cases and the law in a way that made him feel confident that he understood a subject. Gunnigle would make the class think about both sides of an argument.
"You never knew which way she leaned, politically speaking," West said. "She was just trying to get you to think about the problem."
Gunnigle’s law office focuses on birth law and advocating for individualized education programs for students. The mother of three said her 12-year-old son has made an impact on her career. He is on the autism spectrum and profoundly gifted.
She said her son has been expelled or politely asked to leave from multiple schools.
"We have gone to hell and back for our children, and for him in particular, in advocacy," Gunnigle said.
Her son is now a student at Paradise Valley Community College and is succeeding in his classes, she said.
"He's one of the big reasons why I got involved with public life here," she said. "I saw how many children were slipping through the cracks. I saw that untapped talent, and I want to make sure that no other family or parent has to face challenges that we have to go through."
Focus on criminal justice reform
Throughout her campaign Gunnigle has stated she is an advocate for criminal justice reform while harshly criticizing Adel.
Gunnigle said the county attorney hasn’t taken significant steps in her year in office to improve the legal system but has continued the harsh legacy of Montgomery and his predecessor, Andrew Thomas.
National advocacy and research organizations consistently rank Arizona in the top five states in the country for mass incarceration.
According to an August report by The Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry, 61.4% of the state's prison population was convicted in Maricopa County.
Slugocki said the County Attorney's Office fuels the state's mass incarceration, which costs Arizona $1.2 billion.
Gunnigle said several issues need to be addressed to reform the system, including:
- Changing a process that allows a person to be charged as a repeat offender the first time the person appears in front of a judge.
- Being smarter with the office's resources, especially in drug crimes and mental health issues.
- Dismissing charges for personal use of marijuana.
- Bringing back the County Attorney's public corruption unit.
"Everything that we proposed are common sense reforms that will make our communities safer, and they will save us money when they are implemented," she said.
The concerns of victims can be compatible with criminal justice reform, Gunnigle said. She said reforms will reduce prosecutors' caseloads and ensure the remaining cases get the attention they deserve.
"This campaign has been about having our priorities straight and making sure this office's priorities, as they should be, are crimes of violence, crimes that target women, children and our seniors, human trafficking and public corruption," she said.
Gunnigle told voters in an October 2019 op-ed in The Republic the county needs to work harder with its diversion programs serving people with drug charges.
“So far Maricopa County has been unable to effectively invest in diversion programs at large scale," she wrote. We need our largest county to be represented by a county attorney who is willing to take these issues head on and break the prison cycle for those working through substance misuse disorders.”
She wrote the public needs a county attorney who will advocate for sentencing reforms to help those who are dealing with chemical dependencies avoid decades-long prison sentences.
West said he believes Gunnigle's approach will help the community by reducing the number of repeat offenders and getting treatment for defendants dealing with substance abuse.
"Just throwing an addict in prison doesn't help," he said. "I worked in the prisons for three years, and I know they come out still as addicts."
West said seeing repeat offenders in prison was one of the reasons why he decided to become a lawyer.
Gunnigle said her campaign has a plan to fix the racial disparities in sentencing that goes beyond the data dashboard Adel's administration has made public.
Adel's campaign recently said in a news release that the county attorney recognizes more work needs to be done to improve the system. Adel plans to lead a review of sentencing guidelines and work with lawmakers, according to her campaign.
In July, Gunnigle criticized Adel for choosing high-profile attorney Rachel Mitchell as the head of the County Attorney's Office's new prosecution integrity unit.
Mitchell was the lead questioner of Christine Blasey Ford during the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee's hearings for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. Ford accused Kavanaugh, who was later confirmed to the high court, of sexual assault when they were teenagers.
"I hope that wrongfully convicted Arizonans will be treated more fairly than Christine Blasey Ford," Gunnigle tweeted.
".@allisteradel has no appetite for reform and this appointment is further evidence she is marching lockstep with the last forty years of this office," she later tweeted. "It is time we elect a leader with moral courage focused on restoring integrity."
Facing criticism from law enforcement
Gunnigle and other members of the Democratic Party have vocally supported police reform. She accused Adel of being silent about Phoenix police using disproportionate use of force against people of color.
That stance drew backlash from police unions in the county. Many have announced support for Adel.
On Aug. 21, Gunnigle tweeted her campaign “was on the receiving end of a vitriolic attack” by the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association. The candidate claimed the union allows hatred and misogyny.
The union posted on Facebook criticizing Gunnigle for calling the death of Ramon Lopez, who died in police custody, unacceptable. The union acknowledged that Gunnigle was endorsed by Phoenix mayor Kate Gallego and the investigation into Lopez’s death was not completed.
“Yet Ms. Gunnigle has already judged the officers involved in this incident,” the union wrote. “Is this the person you want as your county attorney?”
“Judgment should come at the END of an investigation,” one commenter said. “The candidate should know better — therefore, she is not suited for the position."
The person labeled Gunnigle as "too progressive."
Gunnigle tweeted that demanding accountability from law enforcement is good governance and there needs to be change at the County Attorney’s Office.
In September, Gunnigle spoke at a news conference for the family of Dion Johnson. Johnson, a 28-year-old Black father, was shot and killed by a Arizona Department of Public Safety trooper on Memorial Day. His death led to a series of protests in the Valley.
Last month, Adel announced the trooper, George Cervantes, would not face charges because the County Attorney’s Office determined he fired his weapon because he feared for his life.
Johnson's family and multiple advocacy groups said they have lost faith in the criminal justice system.
Gunnigle called Adel’s decision a political move and told Johnson's family she was sorry the County Attorney’s Office didn't give them justice.
“We will never see equal justice under the law so long as County Attorneys like Allister Adel politicize prosecutions and fail to uphold their obligation to the Constitution," she said in a statement sent to media before the family's news conference.
Gunnigle called Adel's decision "an act of cowardice" and said voters should demand reforms that require transparency and accountability.
In 2017, Muhammad Abdul Muhaymin Jr. died while being detained by Phoenix police. Officers were called to a city community center when he tried to take his dog with him into a bathroom. They discovered Muhaymin had a warrant out for his arrest.
At least four officers got on top of him and held him down. Some put their knees on his neck and head.
"I can't breathe," Muhaymin is heard saying several times in police body camera footage. When officers eventually got off him, Muhaymin had no pulse, according to comments from officers in the video.
Gunnigle called the case "heartbreaking and egregious."
Both candidates told The Republic in September they would reinvestigate the case if it was resubmitted by law enforcement. Gunnigle also said she would reopen the case without a new police investigation.
Gaining the trust of people of color
The ACLU released a report in July stating people of color were given longer jail sentences and higher fines than white people during Montgomery's leadership at the office.
Adel in January also announced that a former Tempe police officer wouldn't be charged in the death of a 14-year-old boy who was running away from the officer when he was shot.
Gunnigle told The Republic she wants to start elevating other voices inside the County Attorney's Office by recruiting and retaining more people of color to work for the office and to place more in leadership positions.
"When you look at the executive team of this office, at attorneys in particular, there is not a single person of color at a leadership level at all," Gunnigle said.
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