//Inmate release delayed; judge questions prosecutor’s ‘drastic’ request for conviction reversal

Inmate release delayed; judge questions prosecutor’s ‘drastic’ request for conviction reversal

By Terri Jo Neff

Defendant’s petition cites credibility of SVPD officer and Brady disclosure errors by prosecution team
Judge asks county attorney to confirm admission of rules violation

BISBEE – For more than a month, Jason D. Blessie has been waiting for prison officials to tell him to pack his things, he is heading home. But Blessie remains in prison, even though aMarch 21 court filing by the Cochise County Attorney’s Officeasks presiding judge James Conlogue to “dismiss defendant’s case and vacate the sentence in the interest of justice.”
The request by Valerie Aronoff of the county attorney’s office was in response to a petition forpost-conviction relief filed by Blessieon March 3.  The petition, prepared by attorney Robert Zohlmann, cites “newly discovered evidence” about Mike Mitchell, the Sierra Vista officer who pulled Blessie over nine years ago for an alleged traffic violation.
Zohlmann,  who was also Blessie’s attorney during the 2008 trial, contends that impeachable information about Mitchell’s credibility was not disclosed by the prosecutor or Sierra Vista PD prior to trial. A jury found Blessie guilty of three  drug charges for which judge Conlogue sentenced the Sierra Vista man to 19.5 years in prison.
Aronoff’s request to dismiss the case is usually sufficient to overturn a conviction, but Blessie will not know until May 9 whether Conlogue grants post-conviction relief and vacates the sentence.

That is when the judge will hold ahearing “to confirm the State’s position before such drastic relief is granted.” Conlogue’s order setting the hearing states “it appears that the State’s Response admits a disclosure violation” in asking for the dismissal. The judge wants to ensure that is the intent.
The hearing was put on the court’s calendar April 24, a month after deputy county attorney Aronoff’s filing was received. Aronoff did not return calls asking about the status and Zohlmann would not comment.
According to prison records, Blessie is not scheduled for release until October 2026. If his 2008 conviction is overturned, judge Conlogue must forward a copy of the order to the Arizona Dept. of Corrections. Blessie, age 45, would be released from custody in a day or two, assuming a criminal warrants check comes back clear.
Mitchell admitted criminal acts, unlawfully accessed police databases
The new evidence cited by Blessie and attorney Zohlmann isBrady material– information or evidence known to or available to the prosecution that tends to mitigate a defendant’s guilt or that can be used by the defense to challenge the credibility of a witness.
Court documents show Mitchell performed a search of Blessie and the vehicle he was driving after Mitchell’s canine partner purportedly alerted to the presence of drugs. Because Mitchell was “the sole witness at trial as to the stop, arrest, searches, and items discovered,” Blessie argues that the defense “clearly could have and indeed would have used such Brady information to impeach” officer Mitchell.
The Brady material in question stems from sworn testimony Mitchell gave at a 2004 federal trial involving Jeffrey Royer, a friend and former roommate of Mitchell who was a FBI agent. Mitchell admitted under oath that he accessed police databases (known as NCIC) without proper cause and then passed the information to Royer, who had left the FBI.
Mitchell testified that he did this at Royer’s request on several occasions in 2002 while working for the Gallup (NM) Police Dept. He also testified to knowing unauthorized access and dissemination of NCIC data was a criminal offense. Royer was later convicted of using the data as part of a fraudulent securities scheme.
Mitchell, who was not charged for his role in Royer’s scheme, was working for Sierra Vista PD at the time of his sworn testimony.
Blessie’s petition relies heavily on anAugust 2016 ruling by judge Wallace Hoggatt in anotherpost-conviction relief case. In that case, Jeffrey Rife was pulled over by another Sierra Vista officer after Mitchell claimed to have witnessed a traffic violation. Rife was arrested when illegal drugs were discovered during a search.
Rife insisted Mitchell lied about the traffic violation, which was not witnessed by the officer. But he took a plea deal rather than risk a trial, and was sentenced to seven years in prison.
In that decision, judge Hoggatt ruled “Mitchell violated the law when he ran the NCIC checks requested by Royer” in 2002 and that Mitchell “had an obligation to ensure that his superiors knew of his illegal NCIC searches.” In turn, Hoggatt noted, the superiors “had an obligation to disclose such information” to Rife.
Deputy county attorney Aronoff did not address questions about Mitchell’s conduct in her response to Blessie’s petition. But she does note Mitchell was the primary case officer, and he is now deceased. In requesting dismissal of Blessie’s case, Aronoff points out “the State would be unable to go forward on any possible hearings and/or retrial in this case.”
More petitions for relief cite Mitchell-related disclosure violation

Judge Hoggatt’s decision in the Rife case is cited in several petitions for post-conviction relief that have been heard or are currently pending in various courts.
In March, Hoggattoverturned a 2011 drug conviction involving James Daniel Floresbased on a Mitchell-related Brady complaint. Flores had, however, already completed his prison sentence in that case.
In another case,Milton Flowers was denied a new trialafter alleging a Brady violation. Hoggatt ruled that although Mitchell was present during Flowers’ 2011 arrest for possession of methamphetamine, the officer’s involvement was “immaterial.” The judge determined the trial’s outcome “would have been the same” even if Mitchell’s credibility had been challenged at trial.
Cory Lee Baker has apetition for review pendingwith the Arizona Supreme Court in a case related to non-disclosure of different Brady material about Mitchell.  Baker cites misconduct by Mitchell in 2015 as grounds for Baker’s request to withdraw a May 2015 no contest plea which resulted in a nine year sentence.
Mitchell resigned in October 2015 after he was informed that an internal affairs investigation sustained 11 violations of department policies between May and July 2015.  He later voluntarily relinquished his Arizona police certification. In October 2016 Mitchell committed suicide.
Court urged to accept findings in ‘Rife’, bar state from denying them
Blessie’s petition for post-conviction relief also asks that the State be barred from forcing other petitioners to re-litigate Hoggatt’s findings and conclusion that records of Mitchell’s 2002 activities with Royer constitutes Brady material.
Noting that Hoggatt’s decision in the Rife case was not appealed by the county attorney’s office, Blessie contends the State should be estopped (prevented)  “from denying or challenging said findings of fact or conclusions of law.”
According to Blessie, precluding the State from requiring each petitioner to reprove the facts of the Mitchell-Royer issue will ” foster judicial economy, relieve parties from expense and vexatious litigation, reduce indigent defensefees, and foster respect for adjudication.”
Aronoff’s response did not address thataspect of the Blessie’s petition.
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Contact reporter Terri Jo Neff at cjw_media@yahoo.com or 520-508-3660
EDITOR’S NOTE: JeffreyRife initiated his post-conviction reliefprocess while in prison and then attorney Brick Storts filed the petition on his behalf alleging non-disclosure of Mitchell-related Brady material. After judge Hoggatt vacated Rife’s conviction , the county attorney’s office did not move forward with a new trial. That led to the case being dismissed and Rife being released from prison.