Maricopa County fires prosecutor involved in charging of protesters; here's what to know about April Sponsel

Documents released by officials with the Maricopa County Attorney's Office reveal that a prosecutor who is accused of filing false gang charges against protesters in 2020 has been fired.

In the letter, it was stated that April Sponsel's firing took effect on June 28.

Here's what you should know about the controversy surrounding Sponsel.

Who is April Sponsel?

April Sponsel was a prosecutor for the Maricopa County Attorney's Office.

Sponsel, according to a September 2021 report by the Associated Press, was the lead prosecutor in a case serious gang charges were brought against protesters. After intense scrutiny on the matter, Allister Adel, who served as the Maricopa County Attorney from 2019 until her resignation in 2022, asked for the charges to be dismissed with prejudice, meaning they cannot be refiled, and placed Sponsel on leave.

Adel died on April 30, 2022.

What were the charges that Sponsel filed?

In 2021, we reported that 15 protesters involved in a march against police brutality in October 2021 in Downtown Phoenix were indicted by a grand jury on charges of assisting with a criminal street gang.

According to a letter from Phoenix City Manager Ed Zuercher to Arizona Attorney General's Office Chief Deputy Joe Kanefield, the MCAO alleged, in front of a grand jury, that the protesters were part of a gang called ACAB - "All Cops Are B******s." Prosecutors said the gang was made to create violence against police.

The investigation noted that both Phoenix Police and the MCAO made the decision to press gang-related charges. In a letter to the Arizona Attorney General's Office, Zuercher said the testimonies of a Phoenix police sergeant and a deputy with MCAO were described as "egregious" and that information presented to the jury had been "false." During a testimony by Sgt. Douglas McBridge, investigators say McBridge compared the group to notorious street gangs like the Bloods and Crips.

"It also found those involved ‘consciously avoided" including the Gang Enforcement Unit (GEU) in an attempt to ’sideline those deemed likely to object to charging the protestors as members of a criminal street gang,'" officials said in a statement.

The Gang Enforcement Unit's supervisor told investigators he would have said the situation did not meet the definition of a criminal street gang. The report said the GEU's lack of involvement is a red flag.

The investigations were conducted by an outside law firm called Ballard Spahr, and findings from the investigation led to the suspension of Phoenix Police Chief Jeri Williams for one day.

What did the termination letter say?

In the letter, officials with MCAO state that Sponsel violated three sections of the Maricopa County Employee Merit System Resolution: incompetency, inefficiency, and neglect of duty.

Officials state that while Sponsel was placed on administrative leave, her caseload was reassigned to other attorneys, and during the process, they discovered several cases where Sponsel's decision-making presented concerns.

"In considering both the administrative investigation and based on my review of these additional cases, I find a disturbing pattern of excessive charging and a failure to review available evidence," read a portion of the letter. "I have concluded that dismissal is appropriate."

What else is Sponsel accused of?

In June, we reported that Sponsel is also accused of making statements to the grand jury that were exaggerated or not supported by the evidence.

Other allegations were made in the letter that are related to cases Sponsel once handled.

State v. Fernandez

In the letter, officials said the case involved a man, identified only as ‘Mr. Fernandez,' who was accused of pulling out a gun and pointing it at three police officers, during an incident where officers responded to an incident where Fernandez allegedly tried to enter a stranger's car in the parking lot.

"As the officers talked to him, Mr. Fernandez was moving his hands towards his pockets. An officer asked him to put his hands on his head to conduct a quick pat down to ensure there was nothing dangerous in his pockets," the letter read, in part. "When the officer got close to him, the reports state that Mr. Fernandez pulled out a gun and pointed it at the three officers."

Fernandez, according to officials, was charged with three counts of aggravated assault. However, they also state that body-worn camera video taken during the incident did not clearly show that Fernandez pointed the gun at the three officers.

"The events happened extremely quickly. It took roughly a second for the gun to go from his pocket to the floor. Only with a frame-by-frame viewing of the video is it even possible to see the weapon. In that second, it is possible that he pointed the gun toward one officer, but he certainly did not ‘muzzle’ all three as was stated in the report," read a portion of the letter. "This fact alone should have at least made you question the fact that you had charged three counts."

Officials also state that Fernandez, in an interview, stated that his intent was to get rid of the gun.

"Based on the video, his statement of his intent was certainly plausible. That fact should have alerted you to the possibility that you did not have a reasonable likelihood of conviction for all of those charges," read a portion of the letter.

Officials also accuse Sponsel a lack of responsiveness in the case, claiming the defense attorney reached out to Sponsel in December 2020 by e-mail in regards to the video evidence.

"According to the defense attorney, you never responded to this e-mail in writing, but in a subsequent conversation a few weeks before you were placed on leave, you told him you saw his point and would talk to the officers. There is nothing in the file to indicate that any such conversation occurred," read a portion of the letter. "This lack of follow up is unacceptable, particularly when a person is facing the extremely serious charges Mr. Fernandez was facing."

State v. Shahbaz

In one case, officials said Sponsel filed charges of aggravated assault against a man, referred to as ‘Mr. Shahbaz,' towards whom Sponsel filed charges of aggravated assault and obstructing a criminal investigation or prosecution in connection with an incident that happened at the scene of an officer involved shooting.

In that case, Shahbaz, according to officials, approached officers at the scene of the officer involved shooting, and was asked by officers to leaave the area.

"[Shahbaz] was immediately aggressive and yelled at the officers. An officer pushed him and, according to the reports, [Shahbaz] ‘took an aggressive stance.’ The video shows that Mr. Shahbaz swung his arm at an officer's arm after the officer had shoved him backwards a second time. Mr. Shahbaz did not hit the officer's arm. Mr. Shahbaz was then tackled to the ground and arrested," read a portion of the letter.

In the letter, officials accused Sponsel of not viewing a piece of video evidence related to the case. The video was uploaded to an evidence website days before Sponsel filed the charges in February.

"According to the audit log, the relevant video in this case was not reviewed by you or anyone from this officer until after you were placed on leave and the case was reassigned," read a portion of the letter.

In that same letter, officials called Sponsel's decision-making and judgment in regards to the second charge as "equally concerning," noting that Shabaz did nothing during the incident that would violate the relevant statutes.

"Prosecutors are given great latitude and discretion when deciding what charges to bring. However, twisting and stretching a statute to try and make it fit a situation ti was clearly not designed to cover is an abuse of that discretion, and it does not serve the prosecutors' goal to seek justice," read a portion of that letter.

Other cases

Officials also expressed concerns over Sponsel's actions in a number of other cases, one of which involved a person who took part in a protest outside the Phoenix Police headquarters in 2020. 

What did officials conclude in regards to Sponsel?

In the letter, officials wrote that while Sponsel's evaluations over her years at MCAO reflect a skilled prosecutor, and that her work has held many violent offenders accountable, they have also discovered a continuing pattern of deficient performance.

Officials also wrote that Sponsel's actions in the cases listed in the letter undermined public confidence in the criminal justice system.

"You failed to exercise song judgment in these matters, and you failed to perform your essential duties to this office and this community. For all these reasons, you are dismissed from your position," a portion of the letter read.

What can Sponsel do now?

According to the letter, Sponsel has a rifhgt to appeal the dismissal to the Amricopa County Employee Merit System Commission, within 10 calendar dates of the notice.

In February, we reported that Sponsel filed a lawsuit claiming that Adel made her a scapegoat and defamed her in the media.