An Army of Juan

Written by Paul Rubin Category: People Issue: July 2015
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Maricopa County prosecutor Juan Martinez seized the international spotlight during the Jodi Arias trial. Is he destined for greater things, or will his controversial methods prove his undoing?

Years before the Jodi Arias trial lifted him to news TV stardom, veteran Maricopa County prosecutor Juan Martinez found himself locked in another stirring courtroom drama – the 2009 murder trial of Phoenix Suns nutritionist Douglas Grant.

Grant was charged with first-degree murder in the death of his wife Faylene. Specifically, the state accused Grant of drugging Faylene at their Gilbert home and watching her drown in a bathtub before perfunctorily calling for help.

The trial was desperate and nasty, a street fight. Bolstered by the discovery of several notes and letters that convincingly painted Faylene as suicidal, the defense seemed to have a fighting chance at an acquittal, or at least a hung jury.

Martinez knew the score. So, in his closing argument, the prosecutor sprung a brand-new theory on jurors. In a dramatic quasi-recreation, he demonstrated to jurors how Grant, whom he dubbed a “black angel of death,” had knelt next to his drugged wife and held her head underwater in the tub to ensure her end.

Trouble was, Martinez had no bona fide evidence, nada, to prove it. Courtroom theatrics and overkill had worked for him in the past, but this time didn’t pass muster with jurors. The panel deliberated for days before returning with a guilty verdict for manslaughter, much less serious than the first-degree murder count Martinez had urged.

Afterward, some jurors expressed confusion over the prosecutor’s 11th-hour ploy. “I didn’t get it,” a female juror told me at the time. “None of us liked Grant and we thought he was guilty of something. But only a few of us bought what Juan said at the end. It was weird.”

Six years later, in the blessed aftermath of America’s murder trial of the century – and a life sentence for Arias – Martinez is far more famous than he was at the time of the Grant trial.

But little else has changed. He remains the most reviled – and revered – person at the Maricopa County courthouse.

Not surprisingly, Martinez’s haters include of a slew of criminal-defense attorneys who view him as a rabid, self-aggrandizing junkyard dog. With a quarter century of service at the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office, he long has been one of the agency’s go-to options for prosecutorial heavy lifting, ever ready to run the grueling long-distance race that is a first-degree murder trial. Martinez has been front-and-center in some of the county’s highest profile and most intriguing capital trials – the sleepwalker case of Scott Falater, the killer lady case of Wendi Andriano, the Doug Grant murder trial. He has outwitted and outworked many defense attorneys along the way.

But he’s a polarizing figure even at his own shop, the MCAO, where he operates as a proud loner, according to several inside sources. In hushed tones and off-the-record comments, colleagues past and present talk about his monumental ego and pathological disdain for plea bargaining – how he uses his influence and clout to insist on trials on slam-dunk cases of guilt, sucking up time, money and limited resources while making victims’ loved ones relive horrors in court. All to get another notch on his estimable belt.

Martinez’s supporters inside the criminal justice system point to his tenacity and smarts, and willingness to take on powerful institutions, even law enforcement. Martinez’s naysayers – both in and out of his agency – give him credit for being formidable in court, but object to his proclivity for salacious yarn-spinning and below-the-belt tactics, concerns that existed before Jodi Arias butchered Travis Alexander at his Mesa apartment in June 2008, and before the ensuing media circus transformed him into the unimpeachable cable news matinee idol known as “Mr. Juanderful.”

Illustration by Ian Keltie; Photography provided by Associated press Mark Henle, Tom Tingle & David WallaceFor Martinez, an old-school capital case prosecutor in an era when death-eligible cases are shrinking in Maricopa County and elsewhere, the Arias case was tailor-made on many levels. It was a perfect storm – one that may yet gust Martinez clean out of the MCAO.
    
Juan Martinez hardly fits the mold of a matinee idol, or even of a dime-store TV talking head: No pretty boy, he is a small man in his 50s with a prominent nose, L’Oreal-dark dyed hair, a high-pitched voice and narrow, burrowing eyes. But he has a great skill-set for a trial lawyer, including a near-photographic memory for dates, times and places, and he’s super-fast on his feet.

Martinez’s backstory is admirable, even inspiring. Born in Mexico, he is the second-youngest of seven siblings and immigrated to the States as a youngster not knowing any English. (Martinez, who can be as soft-spoken out of court as he is combative inside of it, declined to speak with PHOENIX magazine for this story.)

Martinez and his family settled in California, where he learned the language, adapted to the new culture and became the first of his family to attend college, much less graduate.

He ran cross-country in high school and was a fine student, determined to make something of himself in his adopted country. After completing his undergraduate work, Martinez was accepted at Arizona State University’s law school, and graduated in 1984.

Like many career prosecutors, Martinez worked as a criminal-defense attorney for a short spell after law school. The Maricopa County Attorney’s Office hired him in 1988, and he soon proved himself as a workhorse in the trenches of the local justice system.

Over time, Martinez honed the combative courtroom style that would prove so effective with juries – and maddening to his opponents. He habitually interrupts contrary witnesses and opposing counsel, throwing off their rhythm and shifting the discussion where he wishes – and he usually gets away with it.

“Judges and opposing attorneys seem to be a little slow on the switch with the guy,” says Phoenix lawyer Robert McWhirter. “He has a way of getting what he wants in the courtroom, and he is truly relentless. This is not necessarily a compliment.”

In the early 1990s, Martinez moved over to the agency’s homicide unit, where he worked under Bob Shutts, a respected deputy county attorney who tried three murder cases with him. “Juan grabs onto a case and won’t let go until it’s over,” says Shutts, who now heads his office’s cold-case unit. “He works and works and works, and fights for the payoff. Yes, he’s a bulldog.”

Shutts sat mutely at the prosecution table for the entirety of Arias’ recent resentencing trial, but he won’t discuss his odd role or any aspect of the case, citing the convicted woman’s pending appeal.

Asked why Martinez has such a negative reputation with so many at the courthouse, Shutts says: “Why don’t you ask them?”

PHOENIX magazine did.

“Juan is a victory-at-any-cost prosecutor driven by his own ego,” says Mel McDonald, a onetime judge and United States Attorney for the District of Arizona now working as a criminal-defense attorney. “He lies easily and he always overreaches, always plays to the mob mentality.”

McDonald would know as well as anyone – he battled Martinez in the aforementioned Doug Grant murder trial.

The motive for the crime – as theorized by the prosecution – was Grant’s desire to reconnect with a younger woman named Hilary whom he had dated while divorced from Faylene (the couple remarried two months before her death).

But evidence of Grant’s guilt was scant. McDonald argued Faylene died either accidentally or intentionally by her own hand. As a suggestion of suicide, McDonald pointed to a slew of poignant and troubling letters Faylene penned shortly before her death.

“I know I will be here with my body until it is buried,” Faylene wrote to Doug and Hilary, “and I have held a secret hope for several weeks that I would be able to see you married that I could be there!”  

For months, Martinez denied the existence of Faylene’s relevant writings (other than the few already disclosed). When finally forced to concede their existence, Martinez blamed a Gilbert police detective for having “lost” them. The detective denied it under oath.

As often is his modus operandi at trial, Martinez tried to exploit Doug Grant’s sexual sins no matter how tangential to the charges. Without a lick of evidence, he told jurors that Grant had arranged “some kind of threesome” with Faylene and Hilary (whom he married shortly after Faylene died). Sensing that his argument of premeditated murder was on shaky footing, Martinez concocted the story about Grant drugging his wife, which the jury rejected.

McDonald says he loves a good battle in the courtroom, and usually remains collegial with the other side. Not this time.

“I haven’t spoken to Martinez since he jetted out of court after the jury shot him down,” McDonald says, referring to the lesser manslaughter verdict. “He doesn’t play clean, and he is far too devious for me to have any respect for him. He is dangerous.”

Even when Martinez convincingly wins a conviction, his methods often come under scrutiny. One such instance was Martinez’s prosecution of Wendi Andriano, an Ahwatukee woman who murdered her husband in an Arias-like frenzy in 2000.

Like Arias, Andriano was a woman in her 30s who claimed self-defense, and testified at trial. A jury sentenced her to death. In 2007, the Arizona Supreme Court upheld the verdict, but noted Martinez had taken “every opportunity to infuse the trial with marginally relevant information about Andriano’s partying and man-chasing.” (Andriano remains on death row pending years of appeals.)

Do these tactics serve the greater justice? Some say yes – and Martinez will deploy them against any defendant, from hardened criminal to career cop. Consider Martinez’s successful prosecution of former Phoenix police officer Richard Chrisman, who was charged with second-degree murder in the October 2010 shooting death of an unarmed south Phoenix man during a domestic-violence call. The key witness against Chrisman was a fellow officer named Sergio Vergillo, who was an eyewitness to the shooting.

A jury convicted Chrisman of aggravated assault amid the inevitable cries of the defense attorney that Martinez had committed “prosecutorial misconduct” during the case. Chrisman later pled guilty to manslaughter before his retrial on the second-degree murder charge, and was sentenced to seven years in prison, the minimum. His appeal is pending.

“I can honestly tell you that the case wouldn’t have happened without Juan’s persistence,” says Alex Femenia, a retired Phoenix police detective who now is an investigator at the MCAO. “You had a powerful police union that was behind Chrisman all the way, and a lot of people at our office who thought there was no chance in hell at a conviction. Juan just did the right thing and went for it.”

Illustration by Ian Keltie; Photography provided by Associated press Mark Henle, Tom Tingle & David WallaceStill, many who’ve watched Martinez in the courtroom over the years attest to his chronically vindictive behavior toward witnesses and defendants. One notorious instance occurred in the late 1990s, during the well-publicized capital murder case against Scott Falater, a curious and tragic crime that garnered national attention. The defendant was a devoutly religious Motorola design engineer who, one awful night, repeatedly stabbed his wife in the backyard of their north Phoenix home and dumped her body in the swimming pool.

Falater had no known motive to kill Yarmila, the mother of his two teenage children, who were asleep in the home at the time. Without corroboration, Martinez suggested it may have been Yarmila’s supposed lack of enthusiasm with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints – evidently, Falater was more involved with the church than his wife – or perhaps it was the defendant’s allegedly unrequited desire to have another child with her.

Falater claimed from the start – and still does – to have been in a sleepwalking state when the killing happened. The jury convicted him of first-degree murder.

Martinez sought the death penalty, which in those days was considered by judges, not juries. Falater’s trial attorney, Mike Kimerer, says he was appalled by his opponent’s courtroom overkill.

“Juan prepares well and he knows how to pick his expert witnesses,” says the veteran Kimerer, sounding like he’s damning with faint praise, “but he has a cruel streak that doesn’t always work. I just don’t think he can help himself.”

Case in point: Martinez’s cross-examination of the Falaters’ daughter Megan, 17 at the time. Megan was trying to save her dad from death row even knowing he had killed her beloved mother.

A few perfunctory questions from Martinez would have sufficed, but he couldn’t resist going for the jugular in an attempt to discredit her testimony. During his cross-examination, Martinez grilled Megan about how well she really had known her parents. (His tone: Sarcastic, biting, shrill, mean.)

Martinez: “And basically it was really [your mother’s] job to do the dinner, the pool, the laundry. Anything else?”

Megan: “Well, I don’t know. I think that was it.”

Martinez: “Would she help you with your homework at times?”

Megan: “No. I do that on my own.”

That’s when Megan Falater broke down in tears. Reporters in court that day remember the moment as cruel, pitiless and unnecessary.

Judge Reinstein, a former prosecutor not known for being soft on criminals, didn’t buy Martinez’s argument for a death sentence. Instead, he sentenced Falater in January 2000 to life in prison, without the possibility of parole.

Just like Arias.

“Love that smile!” someone named “Angela” wrote on the Juan Martinez Prosecutor Support Page in 2013, one of many Facebook pages devoted to the Arias case. It was in reference to a photo of a grinning Martinez posing with a much taller, attractive blonde female just outside the courthouse. “Damn, could u be any sexier, Mr. Juanderful?!”

Martinez’s fame grew exponentially as the Arias case went global – it may have been the first trial by Twitter. Certainly, the prosecutor didn’t create the creepy, Salem-like bloodlust that pervaded the case – or its surreal celebrity underpinnings. But he thrived playing the zealous white knight to Arias’ monstrous vixen, a role that underscored both his strengths and liabilities as a prosecutor.  

From the outset, Arias – fighting a mountain of damning evidence – seemed outmatched. Martinez’s interminable cross-examination of Arias was like watching a shark playing in a fishbowl. The pair circled each other like an odd couple in purgatory, bickering endlessly about everything, especially Arias’ myriad sexual adventures with the late Alexander.

The match-up amounted to a 50 Shades of Grey rough-love scene for the legion of Arias trial junkies who tingled joyously when “their” Juan pummeled her time and again.

Did he enjoy the spotlight? Absolutely. In a pretrial hearing, an attorney for Arias asked Judge Sherry Stephens to order potential witnesses not to speak with media. “Apparently the [national TV] folks are pursuing everyone,” the lawyer said. “They’re pursuing Ms. Arias’ family. I don’t know all of them they’re pursuing. I am sure if a witness was contacted by [cable courtroom show] In Session… they’d talk to Mr. Martinez.”

Martinez disagreed, telling the judge, “I wish I had control over In Session. I’d make myself [appear] on their show every day.”

Some of the Juanettes claim to have taken matters into their own hands, literally. At least one woman, a trial watcher who became a regular “commentator” on national shows, bragged to other groupies and to at least one reporter about having bedded Martinez. Untold others in the blogosphere fantasized in writing about doing just that. (For the record, Martinez has a longtime partner with whom he co-owns a home.)

Even seasoned members of the media who should have known better were in thrall of Martinez during Arias. “His first name has been co-opted by the Web,” local crime author Camille Kimball fawned in a blog post, “as fans frequently refer to him as ‘Juanderful,’  ‘Juantastic,’ and other clever puns showing enthusiastic admiration for the short, slender man who displays the cerebral machismo of a Captain Kirk, with an identically equal commitment to justice and to winning.”
Martinez became the latest in a hallowed American tradition: the hotshot attorney working a high-profile murder case who hits the fame jackpot. Johnnie Cochran in O.J. Simpson, Vincent Bugliosi in Manson, F. Lee Bailey in Sam Sheppard.

Though he didn’t win the death sentence he craved, Martinez at the end of the day did his job, which was to keep Arias locked up for the rest of her days. He went to trial – two trials, actually – for months on end. It was a lot of work.

That said, Arias was no whodunit. It was a slam dunk. Investigators had quickly exposed her as a liar and a murderess, and Martinez could have authored a plea deal of life imprisonment with no chance of parole, or none until she was very old. Gotten the same result, essentially. But that’s not how Martinez operates.  

According to insiders at the MCAO, Martinez pushed hard, first to make Arias a capital murder case, then to take it to trial. Winning a “spirited debate” within the agency, Martinez convinced his supervisors that jurors would surely send Arias to death row in a heartbeat. He overreached. And the result was familiar: A guilty verdict, yes, but amid accusations of lying and misconduct.

For once, it wasn’t just opposing counsel saying nasty things about him. Audio/visual forensic expert Bryan Neumeister testified last December at a hearing requested by Arias’ defense lawyers concerning alleged “prosecutorial misconduct” by Martinez.

Technically, the lawyers were asking Judge Stephens without jurors present to declare a mistrial. Odds of that happening were nil, but attorneys were making a record for Arias’ future court appeal.

Mesa police witnesses and Martinez long had avowed that no pornography existed on victim Travis Alexander’s home computer, as Arias claimed. More to the point, she claimed to have seen child porn on the computer, and said it had revolted her.

If the porn wasn’t there, it bolstered Martinez’s repeat talking point about Arias being a liar; she was, but not necessarily about the porn. Neumeister told the judge he had uncovered vast amounts of pornography and related viruses on Alexander’s home computer – however not the kiddie porn Arias said she’d seen.

How the porn angle ultimately may have helped Arias’ cause is uncertain. Surely, Neumeister’s testimony spoke more to the credibility of the Mesa police investigation and of prosecutor Martinez than to anything else.

Neumeister told Judge Stephens that prosecutor Martinez and the Mesa P.D. case agent “either are stunningly incompetent or they are lying [by insisting there was no porn]. There is no gray area.”

Martinez on cross-examination snappily accused Neumeister of at best being the incompetent one, a charlatan in cahoots with a desperate defense team. Neumeister retorted, “You are lying, straight-out lying, prosecutorial misconduct.”

That had to be a first, a witness striking back at Martinez on the prosecutor’s home court. “The data is the data,” Neumeister says. “It was clear-cut. This prosecutor is smart, and he had to know what the data showed. But his style is to throw everything against the wall in attack mode and see what sticks.”

Neumeister doesn’t testify often. But he regularly freelances for police agencies, the U.S. military, criminal and civil attorneys and, yes, for Juan Martinez’s office. “Lawyers are officers of the court and are not supposed to lie,” he says. “He lied. He shouldn’t be able to do that in a court of law, should he?”

In the end, Arias was sentenced to life, not death, and no matter how Martinez and County Attorney Bill Montgomery later spun it, that counts as a loss.

Keeping their client off death row was the only realistic goal of Arias’ attorneys. Whether one or all 12 jurors voted for “life” (just one did, a woman quickly hounded by media as if she, too, had committed a crime) didn’t matter.

The defense won the day in Arias, not Martinez.

How much longer Martinez remains at the MCAO remains to be seen. More than one source in and out of the agency says he is angling for a national media forum akin to Nancy Grace’s, a kindred “they’re-all-guilty” sort with a knack for overstatement. He’s also said to be doing a book about Arias with a ghostwriter.

But Martinez still has a caseload, and more theatrics at more murder trials may be in the offing, something local defense attorneys are keenly aware of.

Attorney Robert McWhirter is now completing a sweeping complaint against Martinez that he plans to submit to the State Bar of Arizona. McWhirter, the supervising attorney at the ASU Alumni Law Group, never has gone up against Martinez in court, but is working on behalf of the Arizona Attorneys for Criminal Justice, a group that despises the prosecutor’s tactics.

He knows the Bar rarely punishes prosecutors, but says he is hopeful that Martinez’s “troubling body of work” will lead to serious scrutiny. (A State Bar of Arizona spokesperson says Martinez has no history of being disciplined by that agency.)

“At least four or five Arizona Supreme Court cases list Juan by name as a problem,” McWhirter says. “He’s brazen and has a remarkable willingness to game the system for tactical advantage. And so far he’s gotten away with getting what he wants in court, and just how he wants to get it. ”

But McWhirter concedes Martinez is a slippery target, someone who “works in very gray areas of the law. He’s shrewd, and a survivor.”

The latter surely is something on which, finally, most everyone can agree.