Death penalty case grinds toward trial

Bella Grogan-Cannella

Bella Grogan-Cannella

KINGMAN - Judge Lee Jantzen denied another round of requests from attorneys representing death penalty defendant Justin James Rector last week as the case slowly progresses.

The most common reason for Jantzen's denials is the requests deal with issues that won't occur until the eve of trial, or if Rector is ultimately convicted of first-degree murder when his case is heard in October. Rector, 27, is accused of strangling to death 8-year-old Bella Grogan-Cannella, whose body was found buried in a shallow grave about a mile from her Bullhead City home in September, 2014.

Defense attorney Gerald Gavin at a hearing last week told Judge Lee Jantzen that he and co-counsel Ron Gilleo continue to investigate the case, but interviews have stalled. Prosecutor Greg McPhillips took the blame for that, saying his caseload has prevented him from scheduling interviews with witnesses and investigators.

Gavin said much of the investigation involves work performed by a mitigation expert - a person who tries to find facts regarding a defendant's past that might compel a jury to decline a death penalty verdict once they find him or her guilty of the underlying charge.

A more timely issue regards Rector's mental health status. Gavin said Rector's mental health "will certainly be an issue," but he is not yet ready to have the man submit to psychological testing, including an exam that could explain whether he was sane or not at the time of the alleged killing. Gavin said his mitigation expert continues to struggle with obtaining Rector's records. "His mental health will definitely be an issue," said Gavin. "The difficulty is getting his medical records and social history. We're still not close."

Jantzen tried to pin down a firm deadline, but Gavin didn't commit. "I could spend five years trying to get records, but you won't let me do that," said Gavin.

"That's right," responded Jantzen.

Gavin also mentioned DNA and asked if McPhillips would call an expert, but no DNA was recovered from Grogan-Cannella's body or the surrounding crime scene. His interest was in possibly having to hire his own DNA expert, but McPhillips said the only reason the state would call an expert to testify would be to explain the absence of DNA.

Jantzen scheduled Chronis and status hearings for March 4. Chronis hearings call for McPhillips to prove that probable cause exists to add a number of aggravating factors that justify the death penalty, such as the victim's age or the depravity of the crime. The burden of proof is slight, similar to what it takes to land a grand jury indictment.