Ex-Phoenix Cop’s Misconduct Hangs Over Jacob Harris Case

Jacob Harris's father is heading to appeals court on Wednesday. Federal judges will decide the fate of his wrongful death suit against the city of Phoenix.

Ex-Phoenix Cop’s Misconduct Hangs Over Jacob Harris Case

Jacob Harris's father is heading to appeals court on Wednesday. Federal judges will decide the fate of his wrongful death suit against the city of Phoenix.

Jennifer DiPonzio, the former Phoenix homicide detective who investigated the 2019 police killing of Jacob Harris, mishandled evidence in dozens of murder cases before the Phoenix Police Department allowed her to quietly retire in 2022—without fully investigating all of the misconduct allegations against her. Now, DiPonzio’s history of negligence could play a role in attempts to hold the city of Phoenix accountable for Harris’s death.

Earlier this year, The Appeal published an investigation into the police shooting of 19-year-old Jacob Harris and the prosecution of his three friends who were present at the time of his death, one of whom was just 14 years old. Records revealed that multiple law enforcement officials made false or misleading statements about what happened on the night of January 10, 2019, and deleted text messages related to the incident. Footage taken from a surveillance aircraft contradicts the Phoenix Police Department’s version of events. Even the judge in the criminal case against Harris’s friends rejected officers’ claims that Harris turned toward them with a gun before they opened fire.

Harris’s three friends were ultimately convicted for his murder under Arizona’s controversial felony murder statute. They have been incarcerated since the night police killed Harris.

In late March, local news outlet ABC15 reported that DiPonzio, who led the homicide investigation that exonerated Phoenix police and condemned Harris’s friends, was facing official scrutiny for repeatedly mishandling evidence in murder investigations. DiPonzio’s internal affairs file shows that she was the subject of as many as 18 misconduct allegations during her 18 years on the force—generating over 14,000 pages of internal investigation documents. Her malfeasance had impacted nearly 100 court cases and police investigations, ABC15 reported at the time.

Now, Jacob Harris’s father, Roland Harris, and others are hopeful that news of DiPonzio’s misconduct will bolster their claims that the Phoenix Police Department mishandled the investigation into Jacob’s death—and potentially open up new legal avenues to challenge the convictions of Jacob’s three friends. Harris heads to an appeals court hearing on Wednesday that could decide the fate of his wrongful death lawsuit against the city of Phoenix and the officers who killed his son.

“I am looking for legal help but I haven’t heard back,” said Shawanna Chambers, the aunt and caretaker of Johnny Reed, who was 14 at the time he was incarcerated for Jacob’s death. Reed has at least eight years left on his sentence.

“I worry he’s not going to make it,” Chambers said. “I’m terrified for him. Everyone’s doing what they can to get this case back in court.”

Chambers and Harris have been working with Black Lives Matter Metro Phoenix, the Anti Police-Terror Project, Decarcerate Arizona, and other police accountability groups to get justice for their children. They have joined together to form the Justice for Jacob Harris and the Free the Phoenix Three community coalitions and plan to hold a press conference outside the federal courthouse on Wednesday to “demand justice for Jacob Harris and advocate for the release of Jacob’s friends who were wrongly charged with his murder,” a press release states.

The coalitions also sent an email to several Department of Justice officials two weeks ago requesting a meeting, coalition members confirmed to The Appeal. The DOJ is currently investigating the Phoenix Police Department for its use of deadly force.

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In March, ABC15 broke the news that DiPonzio had mishandled evidence in dozens of murder investigations. In the summer of 2021, DiPonzio went on medical leave. While on leave, her supervisor, Sergeant Jerry Barker, found 55 audio-recorded interviews that DiPonzio had failed to properly document or impound. According to Barker, he reviewed the materials and put together notes and a spreadsheet of impacted cases, then brought his findings to his supervisors.

That information was then brought to the police department’s Professional Standards Bureau (PSB), which handles internal investigations into officer misconduct. From there, Barker said, he doesn’t know what happened: PSB never contacted him. His superiors told him not to return to DiPonzio’s desk.

The full extent of DiPonzio’s misconduct remains unclear. According to ABC15, she went on disability leave for a psychological issue in 2021, so PSB didn’t open an investigation into the mishandled evidence Barker found. DiPonzio officially retired last year.

Asked about its handling of DiPonzio’s misconduct, a spokesperson for the Phoenix Police Department told The Appeal the department does not comment on issues that are under litigation, but added that the department takes “the integrity of our investigations very seriously” and is required to follow the law regarding employee rights.

“When this former detective went out on leave, we transferred her cases to other detectives, following our normal practice whenever a detective becomes unavailable,” Sergeant Robert Scherer said in a statement emailed to The Appeal. “In accordance with discovery requirements, we have been continuously working with the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office to assist in bringing these cases to resolution.”

Defense attorneys have been fighting in court to get the Phoenix Police Department to disclose more information about DiPonzio’s misconduct and how it might impact their client’s cases.

Excerpts of DiPonzio’s internal affairs records show that the allegations against her date back to at least 2013, when her supervisor in the child sex crimes unit reported her for “investigative failures” after she neglected to interview child sex crime victims for over two months. Barker said that DiPonzio didn’t do her work and lied about completing tasks during her time on the homicide squad, which she joined in 2018. In 2020, DiPonzio was caught keeping evidence from murder investigations in brown paper bags under her desk for several weeks at a time, instead of returning it to an evidence locker at the end of her shift, as department policy requires.

But prosecutors with the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office did not notify defense attorneys about issues with DiPonzio until November 2022, ABC15 reported. One defense attorney, David Le Lievre, has filed a motion to compel prosecutors to disclose when they knew about DiPonzio’s misconduct.

“It’s nearly impossible to believe the state only learned of DiPonzio’s mishandling of evidence in November 2022,” Le Lievre wrote in his motion. “It is clear that the State has committed an egregious Brady violation in this case (and the many others affected by DiPonzio’s misconduct).”

The Supreme Court ruled in Brady v. Maryland that prosecutors must provide defense attorneys with any evidence that may be favorable to them, including information that casts doubt on the credibility of a police officer or crime scene analyst or evidence suggesting someone other than the accused committed the crime. According to the National Registry of Exonerations, nearly 2,000 people have been exonerated due to official misconduct since 1989—more than half of all exonerations tracked by the database.

If the county attorney’s office was aware of DiPonzio’s misconduct prior to its prosecution of Jacob Harris’s three friends, they would have been legally required to disclose that information to the defense. DiPonzio documented, collected, and impounded evidence from the scene of Harris’s killing, which was ultimately used to convict his friends for his murder.

The failure of prosecutors to provide this information could raise the possibility that they committed a Brady violation. But according to Colin Miller, associate dean and professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law, and co-host of the wrongful convictions podcast, Undisclosed, this could be a difficult legal argument to make.

“If her dishonesty was known at the pertinent time, this could be a Brady violation,” Miller told The Appeal. “But the next question would be, how important was she to the investigation? Was she important enough to the prosecution that evidence of her misconduct in other cases could have made a difference for the jury?”

The fact that Jacob Harris’s three friends—Johnny Reed, Sariah Busani, and Jeremiah Triplett—all took plea deals out of fear they would receive longer sentences if they went to trial also presents a problem, Miller says.

“There’s a Supreme Court case named Ruiz that says the Brady obligation to disclose impeachment evidence does not apply to pleading defendants,” Miller said. “That makes it very tough to establish a Brady violation when the person has pleaded guilty.”

DiPonzio did not respond to emails, phone calls, or text messages seeking comment. DiPonzio’s husband, Nick DiPonzio, an assistant chief of the Phoenix Police Department, also did not respond to requests for comment.

Asked about the potential impact of DiPonzio’s repeated mishandling of evidence on cases she was involved in, a spokesperson for the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office said the office is unlikely to “provide a ‘comment’ on a question as general as this one.” The spokesperson did not immediately respond to a question about when the Phoenix Police Department first notified the county attorney’s office of DiPonzio’s credibility issues. The county attorney’s office previously told ABC15 that it “immediately took steps to comply with all of its discovery obligations” in November 2022, “upon learning that Phoenix Police had begun an internal affairs investigation” into DiPonzio.

Jacob Harris (left), Jennifer DiPonzio (right).

In 2020, Roland Harris filed a federal wrongful death lawsuit against the city and the officers who shot his child. Harris’s legal team noted in court that they were never able to question DiPonzio about her involvement in the homicide and robbery investigations. His lawyers sought to depose DiPonzio, but attorneys for the city of Phoenix argued that DiPonzio was on leave and too unwell to give sworn testimony.

“When my assistant made contact with her (even though she is on leave), she reported that she can hardly speak at all and is out-of-breath consistently,” attorney for the city Christina Retts said in an email to Harris’s attorneys. “Ms. DiPonzio is medically incapable of being deposed and is on leave. We exhausted all ends to try to find someone who has a specific memory of removing the phones from the cars, and yet no one does.”

Retts sent the email in December 2021, six months after DiPonzio went on leave and her supervisor discovered a hoard of mishandled evidence at her desk. DiPonzio’s medical condition has never been made public, though it’s repeatedly been used as a reason she cannot give sworn testimony. Defense attorneys in other cases under renewed scrutiny due to DiPonzio’s misconduct have not been able to interview her either.

Last year, a federal judge dismissed Harris’s wrongful death suit. Harris appealed. On Wednesday, his attorneys will argue their case before the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

The court will then either affirm the lower court’s ruling or reverse it and send it back to the same judge who originally dismissed the case. DiPonzio’s misconduct will not be a central issue during the oral arguments, since the news of her misconduct came out after the lower court dismissed Harris’s lawsuit, and new evidence or arguments generally cannot be introduced during an appeal.

However, if the panel of judges decides to send the case back to the lower court, Harris’s attorneys could request to reopen discovery, which would allow them to raise the issues of DiPonzio’s credibility. But this would likely be left up to the lower court judge’s discretion.

“If the appeal is granted, I would fully expect the DiPonzio issue to take center stage in a lot of ways,” said Steve Benedetto, Harris’s attorney. “She was the only person with knowledge of where this gun was. Other witnesses repeatedly deferred to her as the person with the most knowledge of the scene.”

The controversy surrounding DiPonzio’s record has only strengthened Harris’s belief that the Phoenix Police Department has been corrupt in its investigation of Jacob’s shooting and subsequent participation in the prosecution of his friends. And he still has lingering questions that he feels DiPonzio would be best positioned to answer.

Why was one of Jacob’s shoes found directly on top of his cell phone on the floor of the back passenger seat of the getaway car, while the other was behind a tire? And why was an officer seen in surveillance footage that night looking at an object that was later reported as Jacob’s gun, before walking past it as if he hadn’t found the weapon yet?

Unable to get even basic answers to these questions, Harris maintains that his son did not have a gun in his hand when he was shot. In the police report on Jacob’s death, several officers stated that they saw a gun on the ground a short distance away from the area where he was shot.

“I think the object that flew out of Jacob’s hand was a cell phone,” Harris said. “The guy on the video wanders like he’s still looking for it. If you walk over and see a gun, why would you keep looking for it?” Harris says he thinks someone switched the cell phone—shown in crime scene photographs under a shoe inside the car—with the gun, which was photographed laying in the dirt.

Ultimately, however, whether DiPonzio’s misconduct will have any bearing on Harris’s civil suit will all come down to what the judges decide after Wednesday’s oral arguments. The panel, which is comprised of one Clinton appointee, one Obama appointee, and one Trump appointee, will issue a ruling in the case some time later this year.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated one of the coalition members. The coalition includes Decarcerate Arizona, not Mass Liberation Arizona.

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