Arizona activists work to hold the criminal justice system accountable through court watching

In a small hearing room in the State Courts Building, a few
individuals in black shirts sat in the three rows of chairs in the back.
For the six hearings in April Sponsel’s disciplinary trial, these court
watchers with Mass Liberation Arizona attended with notepads and pens, observing and taking notes.

Sponsel, a former prosecutor with the Maricopa County Attorney’s
Office, is facing a two-year suspension of her law license for her
involvement in charging Black Lives Matter protesters as gang members in
2020, according to ABC15.
Mass Lib has been following the case since the protesters were charged,
and Matt Aguilar, a lead organizer for the group, said it’s important
for members to follow it to the end.

“It’s important that we’re able to bear witness so we can also
maintain the narrative that there is an issue with the (Maricopa County
Attorney’s) Office, a systematic issue with the office,” Aguilar said.

Mass Lib is dedicated to the end of mass incarceration and the
liberation of marginalized communities. The group’s work focuses on
prosecutorial misconduct, police brutality and alternatives to
incarceration.

One way Mass Lib brings awareness to these issues is through court
watching, a practice where volunteers observe hearings in order to
support defendants, hold judges and attorneys accountable and educate
the public on what’s happening in courtrooms, according to Aguilar.

“These things happen behind closed doors, and there’s a whole
different language that is spoken in those rooms,” Aguilar said. “So
having folks, especially folks that have been impacted by those systems,
be able to be in those rooms brings that education out to the people.”

W. Jesse Weins, a professor at Arizona State University’s School of
Criminology and Criminal Justice, said court watching is an old practice
that has been around since before the United States criminal justice
system existed. He said most lawyers have experienced court watchers at
hearings and will welcome them – but privately have concerns about the
practice.

“​​On a more personal level, none of us like people whose purpose to
be there is to look over your shoulder about things and try to catch you
and see if you’re doing things wrong,” Weins said. “Nobody would want
that in their career, so privately, attorneys might say it’s a bit of a
nuisance.”

However, Weins said that most attorneys accept the practice as an
important part of American civil society. Aguilar said that Mass Lib
often court-watches to provide support to defendants, not just to put
judges and attorneys on guard.

“When folks are facing these systems, they’re often by themselves and
they’re often left without any clue of what to do,” Aguilar said.

Ruia Gautam, the communications director for Mass Lib and a frequent
court watcher, said one of the reasons she enjoys court watching is
being able to offer solidarity to defendants who don’t have anyone in
their corner. She said during her first court-watching experience, she
could tell the defendant was grateful for the presence of court
watchers.

“I didn’t know this person at all, to be honest, but the eye contact
he would make when he turned around and saw all of us packed in there, I
just know how much it meant,” Gautam said.

Gautam attended some of the Sponsel hearings in person and virtually
and said it was important to see some of the key players of the case
against the Black Lives Matter protesters in the flesh.

“We’re very removed from people like prosecutors and cops when they
do this stuff,” Gautam said. “This was my first time seeing April
Sponsel in person, ever. It’s very hard to see them in person. So it was
important to face her and hold her accountable that way.”

Sponsel’s attorney declined to comment on the court watchers or the trial.

In addition to hearings like Sponsel’s, Aguilar said the group
attends criminal court, eviction court, and death penalty and clemency
board hearings. His goal is to create a voter guide for judges on the
ballot in 2024 to help voters decide whether to retain them.

In Arizona, judges on the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals are
appointed by the governor, but must go through retention elections every
six years to determine if they stay on the bench. In larger counties,
superior court judges face a similar process.

“You’ll have all these judges that are up for retention that you
often know nothing about,” Aguilar said. “You literally just have to say
yes or no.”

In the meantime, Aguilar and Gautam encourage anyone who might be
interested in court watching to reach out to Mass Lib and get involved.
The group hosts training to help volunteers know what to look out for
and how to stand in solidarity with defendants.

“It’s one of the easiest ways that we can disrupt the dehumanization
of people who are facing the so-called criminal justice system,” Gautam
said.