Lawyers change in murder case

Jailhouse recordings not an issue, says attorney

Justin James Rector

Justin James Rector

KINGMAN - Citing a conflict of interest, Mohave County Public Defender Harry Moore has withdrawn from representing death penalty defendant Justin James Rector, the Bullhead City man accused of killing and burying an 8-year-old girl last September.

In court documents filed late last week, Moore advised Jantzen that the public defender's office has represented the mother and stepfather of Bella Grogan-Cannella, whose partially clothed body was found buried in a shallow grave in a wash about a mile from her Bullhead City home in early September.

Rector was arrested shortly afterward and Mohave County prosecutors ultimately decided to seek the death penalty against the 26-year-old man.

The public defender's office was assigned the case, but recently learned it has represented Grogan-Cannella's mother, Tania Grogan, and stepfather Ralph Folster III, in previous criminal cases.

Both of them, said Moore in court papers, are "significant" witnesses for the state.

"This raises a situation of successive representation, hampering the ability of the public defender's office to cross-examine each of these witnesses, and to comply with ethical duties of loyalty to prior clients," wrote Moore.

Moore said his decision to remove himself from the case is based solely on the issue of a conflict of interest and has nothing to do with jailhouse telephone recordings between Rector and his father in which he admitted to murdering Grogan-Cannella and wanted to plead guilty to the crime.

The recordings were made on Oct. 31 and in November when Rector still sought to represent himself in his first-degree murder case. He dropped that plan in December.

Moore said he couldn't discuss specifics of the case, but at the December hearing he told Jantzen that Rector agreed to be represented by him and the case resumed its normal course.

The recordings, obtained by the Las Vegas Review-Journal following a public records request, could be damaging to the defendant if they are admitted as evidence in his trial.

According to the Review-Journal and other media outlets, Rector in a phone conversation with his father that was recorded on Oct. 31 said he wanted to plead guilty in order to "man the ... up and take responsibility for his action and take his punishment."

His father, James Rector, told his son it would be in his best interest to allow Moore and the public defender's office represent him.

"It's not about my best interest," said Rector. Rector told his father that he had been up "for a few days," perhaps under the influence of methamphetamine, and tried to "come down" by consuming "a bunch of Nyquil and a bunch of beer."

He thought he hallucinated killing the girl, but later remembered what happened to her.

"That's all I keep thinking about," he said. "This poor little ... girl that didn't deserve it. That poor little girl."

Mohave County Medical Examiner Rexene Worrell ruled Grogan-Cannella died of asphyxiation. There was no evidence that led Worrell to find the girl had been sexually assaulted.

In another phone call that was recorded Nov. 6, a woman identified as Ashley told Rector not to plead guilty and to do what his lawyer told him to do.

Rector, however, told her it was his intention to plead guilty and he also told her about some of the alleged evidence officers had against him.

Moore indicated Rector changed his mind.

"These alleged recordings were not a factor whatsoever in my decision," he said. "I didn't want to wait two years for something to blow apart the case at trial. Since December, he was willing to have me go forward. We were working together."

Indigent Defense Services assigned veteran death penalty attorney Gerald Gavin of Mesa to replace Moore. Jantzen said a trial date for 2016. Rector's next court date was scheduled for March 25.