Death penalty murder case slowly making progress

Justin James Rector is charged in the death of Bella Grogan-Cannella.

Justin James Rector is charged in the death of Bella Grogan-Cannella.

KINGMAN - It's been more than a year since the body of 8-year-old Bella Grogan-Cannella was found about a mile from her Bullhead City home.

She had been strangled to death and her partially clad body was buried in a shallow grave in a wash.

Her mom, stepfather and his mother were arrested on drug charges a couple of weeks following the child's murder. Tania Grogan was sentenced to five years in prison last week for charges related to selling methamphetamine. Stepfather Ralph Folster was sentenced to 20 years last May on drug charges, and grandmother Freddie Nicholson is on probation for possessing drug paraphernalia.

Meanwhile, the death penalty case against the man accused of killing Grogan-Cannella continues to wend its way through the courtroom of Mohave County Superior Court Judge Lee Jantzen.

Justin James Rector, 27, was back in court on Wednesday for a status update on his pending trial, which is scheduled to begin in a year.

Jantzen said he would issue rulings by the end of the week on 11 of many requests made by defense attorneys Gerald Gavin and Ron Gilleo. They and prosecutor Greg McPhillips requested Jantzen schedule a so-called law and motion day for them to argue the merits of the myriad documents, which range from a request Jantzen move the trial outside of Mohave County to asking the judge to rule the death penalty unconstitutional. Other documents of note include a request that Rector be provided a laptop computer with unfettered access in his jail cell in order to review the case against him in private, and one that requests Rector be allowed to wear civilian clothing and appear to be unrestrained at all of his hearings, not just at trial, and that the jail personnel also wear civilian clothing.

Jantzen intimated he has made up his mind on some of them.

"I don't think, on some of these, that I need to hear evidence," said Jantzen. Although he did note the flurry of defense filings has been heavy. "They keep coming and they haven't stopped coming," said Jantzen.

"Digging into this file has been very difficult," he said, noting he's already working weekends to address his other cases and that he has a "rough draft" to his rulings on nearly a dozen of the requests filed by Gavin and Gilleo.

McPhillips voiced concerns regarding the need to have Rector, 27, examined by a psychiatrist, which is generally required in death penalty cases unless the defendant and his or her attorneys refuse. The idea is to look not only at his overall mental health, but specifically his state of mind when he allegedly killed Grogan-Cannella.

Gavin said he and Gilleo would request the exam at some point in the future, but not before they gather as much documentation on Rector's mental health history as possible.

"It's essential for us to provide this in order to make the correct diagnosis," said Gavin.

Getting that information, however, has been difficult, with some entities saying they have no information on treating Rector and others dragging their feet.

"We're trying to not threaten people with subpoenas," he said, but he assured the judge Rector would submit to the exam.

Gavin also asked Jantzen to schedule a "Chronis" hearing, which would give him and Gilleo the opportunity to challenge the probable cause of the state's alleged aggravating circumstances that make Rector eligible for the death penalty.

Such "aggravators" could be accepted if Rector has a prior felony conviction, if it is determined the crime was cruel, heinous or depraved, or cold and calculating.

Jantzen assured attorneys on all sides that he would file his rulings on 11 of the requests. He set Rector's next status hearing for Dec. 9.