KINGMAN – Justin James Rector changed his plea Tuesday to guilty of first-degree murder of 8-year-old Bella Grogan-Cannella in September 2014, accepting the state’s plea agreement in exchange for dismissing two other felony charges of kidnapping and child abuse.
Rector had asked to represent himself at a Dec. 4 hearing before Mohave County Superior Court Judge Lee Jantzen, cutting loose defense attorney Julia Cassels, the third public defender assigned to the case.
He was scheduled to go to trial in April. Prosecuting attorney Greg McPhillips said the state would not allow the trial to be delayed again after more than four years of court hearings and trial postponements.
Rector, 30, is accused of kidnapping Grogan-Cannella from her home at 2486 Lakeside Drive in Bullhead City, child abuse and abandonment of a dead body. The girl’s remains were found buried in a shallow grave in the desert, about two miles from her home.
Jantzen set sentencing for 1:30 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 30. He explained that pleading guilty to first-degree murder, a Class I felony, carries a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole for 35 years.
The state was willing to drop the sentencing for natural life in prison in the plea agreement.
Jantzen twice went over a series of questions with Rector, first in acknowledging his formal waiver request to dismiss his defense attorney and represent himself, then again for terms of the plea agreement.
The judge asked Rector for his name, date of birth, highest level of education (eighth grade), whether he had ever been declared mentally incompetent, whether he’s ever represented himself or has any legal background, and if he’d read the waiver form in detail.
“Is it still your desire to represent yourself?” Janzten asked.
“Yes sir,” Rector responded.
“Do you understand your charge is first-degree murder, that’s the most serious offense?” Jantzen continued.
Again, “Yes sir.”
“I want to move forward,” Rector said. “I’m willing to sign the agreement the state’s offered. I know the attorneys have a legal obligation. It’s my choice to move forward. I can make my own choices.”
The court appointed Ron Gilleo, a former defense attorney for Rector, as limited special adviser counsel. He doesn’t represent Rector, but advises him on questions of legal matter.
Gilleo withdrew as chief defense counsel for Rector in February 2016 due to a conflict of interest. He had replaced Quinn Jolly, the first public defender assigned to Rector’s case.
Cassels said her relationship with Rector had “degraded” to the degree she could no longer provide legal defense.
“If Justin wants to represent himself, it’s perfectly okay,” Cassels told the judge. “It’s his right, it’s his life. We just want the best for Justin.”
Jantzen found that Rector knowingly and willingly has decided to represent himself, that he was not forced or threatened into making the decision, nor were any promises made to him by the state. The judge also asked if Rector had consumed any drugs or alcohol in the last 24 hours, to which the defendant responded that he had not.
Jantzen relieved Cassels and chief investigator James Valdez from the case, thanking them for their hard work.
Cassels, from Phoenix, said she brought the entirety of Rector’s files and documents in the back of her truck and was willing to turn them over to Gilleo. She also dropped off personal items with Rector’s stepmother.
Gilleo said he met with Rector and discussed the difficulty of representing himself and the rights he would give up by pleading guilty.
A lot of people watch TV shows with lawyers in court, and it seems like an easy job, Gilleo said. It’s like people who watch “ER” and think they know what they’re doing at the hospital, he added.
There are more cons than pros to representing yourself, the attorney noted. This is the third time he’s been appointed special adviser, and both of the previous cases did not go well at jury trial.
“Do I think it’s a great idea? No,” Gilleo said outside the courtroom. “But he accomplished what he wanted to do. I’ve had two crash-and-burns. It’s always hard as adviser counsel to be there and watch things going on.”