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Legal Reversal 

County Attorney Barbara LaWall backpedals after the widow of Dr. Brian Stidham files a lawsuit

Pima County Attorney Barbara LaWall is retreating from testimony she gave in April when she and her chief prosecutor said that alleged inaction by one of her lawyers created an opportunity for Dr. David Brian Stidham to be murdered.

Daphne Stidham sued LaWall, the county and a handful of former deputy prosecutors in August, claiming they did nothing to protect the life of her husband, a beloved children's ophthalmologist who was brutally murdered on Oct. 5.

Dr. Stidham's onetime employer, Dr. Bradley A. Schwartz, and alleged hitman Ronald Bruce Bigger, are in Pima County Jail awaiting trial on charges of first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit first-degree murder.

In the weeks following the murder, LaWall disciplined four of her prosecutors. She fired Paul Skitzki. LaWall said Schwartz's ex-fiancée, Lourdes Lopez, told Skitzki of Schwartz's multiple threats against Stidham. Skitzki said he only learned of Schwartz's murderous rages when Lopez told him after the murder.

In testimony before the county Merit Commission, which heard employment-rights appeals from Skitzki as well as former prosecutors Nicki DiCampli and Brad Roach, LaWall said she was compelled to take Lopez's word over Skitzki's, even though LaWall three years ago forced Lopez to resign, as Lopez and Schwartz were about to be indicted on federal drug charges.

Why?

"I knew because of the prior stuff that had gone on and what I had uncovered during this, that Mr. Skitzki had lied, cheated, betrayed two women in my office, that his word could not be trusted," LaWall said under oath on April 20.

She also said that Skitzki had violated the oath of office and the county attorney's mission statement, to "serve the public by protecting the personal rights of the people of Pima County to life, liberty and security."

LaWall, a Democrat in office for nine years, relied upon the mission statement and state ethical rules for lawyers in firing Skitzki.

But in her answer to Daphne Stidham's lawsuit, prepared by Thomas E. Dugal, a longtime member of the county attorney's civil division, LaWall's position is to "deny that any of these statements by LaWall create any legal duty owed by Skitzki or the defendants to (Daphne Stidham) or the decedent."

Before conflicts of interests forced the transfer of prosecution of Schwartz and Bigger to Pinal County, LaWall and her staff handled the case before the grand jury and secured the indictments. LaWall testified in April that Schwartz and Bigger were responsible. She said it with such emphasis that Georgia Brousseau, the Merit Commission chairwoman, reminded her that the two men were innocent until proven guilty.

And David Berkman, who heads LaWall's criminal division, testified at the Merit Commission that if "Skitzki had done what he was supposed to do, Dr. Stidham might be alive and his wife might not be a widow today."

Similarly, LaWall relied upon Lopez's statements--first given three days after Stidham was slaughtered outside his North First Avenue medical office--while determining whether to fire Skitzki, and then justifying that action at the Merit Commission. Now LaWall says she is "without sufficient information to form a belief as to the truth of the allegations that Lopez heard Dr. Schwartz threaten Dr. Stidham's life multiple times while Lopez was representing Schwartz as his lawyer, and therefore denies them"

Skitzki is now an assistant public defender. DiCampli left the county attorney's office to work at the Pascua Yaqui prosecutor's office, and Roach entered private practice. DiCampli and Roach defeated LaWall at the Merit Commission, which awarded them back pay and ordered their suspensions be wiped from their records.

Daphne Stidham's lawsuit, filed by Philip Hall and Gerald Maltz of Haralson, Miller, Pitt, Feldman & McAnally, does not specify damages. But a required claim filed in April sought $20 million from the county, LaWall and the others.

The county, as a government, is being represented by Richard Rollman, a former deputy county attorney, and Richard Brown of Gabroy, Rollman & Bossé. County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry selected the firm, which began work on Aug. 15 under a $75,000 contract.

That puts the firm back in the Schwartz case action. Steve Bossé was the corporate and business lawyer for Schwartz and assisted Schwartz's ex-wife, Joan, in the sale of Schwartz's medical office this year. There have been no complaints of a conflict of interest.

Skitzki is represented by Kathleen Wieneke of the Phoenix firm Jones, Skelton & Hochuli. Neither Wieneke's response to the Stidham lawsuit nor the contract information was available before the Weekly deadline.

Lopez, whose private practice has been subsidized by taxpayers for two years via county contracts to defend indigents accused of crimes, is represented by Anne Elsberry, a former clerk for U.S. District Judge William D. Browning. Elsberry, Skitzki, Roach and DiCampli all have been close friends with Lopez.

Elsberry is asking Judge Deborah Bernini to dismiss the Stidham lawsuit, at least until the criminal trial is completed. Elsberry said lawyers for Stidham "failed to state a duty owed by Ms. Lopez" to Ms. Stidham. And she asserts that Judge Nanette Warner, who is presiding over the Schwartz-Bigger criminal proceedings, has already ruled that Lopez was not acting as Schwartz's lawyer when she said he would rant about wanting to kill Stidham, chiefly because Stidham opened a new practice to which many of the Schwartz patients transferred.

Prosecutors handling the case from Pinal County say Schwartz hired Bigger, a small-time crook, to kill Stidham. Lopez has repeatedly said to police and under oath that Schwartz outlined how the job would be done: by a hit man, outside Stidham's office, in a crime made to look like a carjacking. But Lopez never told police anything before the murder. The killer stabbed and slashed Stidham 16 times and bashed his skull.

"Any suggestions that (Lopez, LaWall, Skitzki and the county) are in part responsible for the death of Dr. Stidham as caused by Dr. Schwartz is premature," Elsberry wrote on behalf of Lopez. "It is perfectly possible that Dr. Schwartz will be found not guilty. In which case, the inaction of the defendants could have had no possible effect on the murder of Dr. Stidham."

Elsberry also worried that moving ahead with the civil trial would hinder the criminal trial.

"Any additional media attention the civil case receives as a result of the damages requested from the county may taint the potential jury pool in the Pima County, requiring that the criminal trial be moved elsewhere," Elsberry wrote. "Public policy, therefore, suggests that this matter be dismissed with leave to refile after completion of the criminal trial."

Warner has adjusted the criminal trial start to Feb. 28.

More by Chris Limberis

  • The Skinny

    • Sep 22, 2005
  • Legal Briefs

    Unexpected Discovery and Disclosure in the Stidham Murder
    • Sep 22, 2005
  • Legal Briefs

    Unexpected Discovery and Disclosure in the Stidham Murder
    • Sep 15, 2005
  • More »

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