New judge sought for Ariz. boy charged in killing

AP News
Posted: Nov 09, 2009 5:33 PM

Defense and prosecution lawyers in the case of a 9-year-old Arizona boy charged with killing his father and another man want a new judge appointed so a plea deal doesn't fall through.

Defense attorney Ron Wood said Apache County Superior Court Judge Michael Roca is biased against his client. The prosecutor, Apache County Attorney Michael Whiting, said Monday he supports Wood's request for a new judge.

The boy, whose name is withheld by The Associated Press because of his age, was 8 years old when he was charged with two counts of premeditated murder in the Nov. 5, 2008 shootings in the eastern Arizona town of St. Johns.

Police alleged he used a .22-caliber rifle to shoot his father, Vincent Romero, 29, and his father's friend, Timothy Romans, 39, as they returned home from work.

In the year since, the big question has always been what to do with him.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys thought they had an answer in a plea agreement crafted over months that the boy signed in February.

In exchange for his guilty plea to negligent homicide for the shooting death of Romans, charges for his father's killing were dropped and he won't spend any time in the state juvenile corrections facility.

But Whiting and Wood are worried that the plea deal could unravel and they could be back to where they started if a new judge isn't appointed to the case.

A status hearing scheduled for Tuesday has been delayed until a second judge reviews the lawyers' request to replace Roca, the current judge.

Roca has said he's inclined to reject the sentencing portions of the plea deal and order the boy committed to the Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections if attorneys in the case agree. Sentencing the boy to treatment in his hometown of St. Johns would be "pure poison," Roca said, and he was unsure if he could lawfully require the boy's mother to leave town for treatment.

Two psychiatrists who did pre-sentencing evaluations of the boy have recommended an out-of-state facility for treatment.

"The answer is no, it doesn't strike me that we are able to go forward with a satisfactory solution with the strictures posed by the stipulations in this case," Roca said at an Oct. 22 hearing.

Wood and Whiting said the court lacks the authority to reject portions of the plea deal after it has been accepted. Wood has urged the court to honor the agreement and proceed with sentencing.

If the judge refuses, Wood said he wants the charges dropped on grounds of double jeopardy. That would keep prosecutors from charging the boy as an adult when he's older, a possibility raised before the plea deal was signed.

Whiting said he hoped the case would have ended months ago. He said the delay in sentencing has to do with funding issues and the unwillingness of some agencies to take in the boy.

Roca said money is not the problem, but rather there's nowhere nearby to spend it. The court has committed its entire juvenile treatment budget to the boy and about $80,000 remains for the fiscal year that ends June 30, a court spokeswoman said.

"Simply put, there is no program anywhere on the horizon that addresses security for the community, security for the minor, necessary intervention," Roca said.