Steller column: Six years too many to get charges in killing of Tucson woman

From the moment the gunshot went off six years ago, the idea that Ronald “R.J.” Corbin killed Genna Ayup by accident has colored his treatment.

In his 911 call on the evening of June 26, 2012, Corbin acknowledged shooting Ayup but, amid sobs, said “it was an accident.”

When police tried to interview him that night, they gave him a sympathetic ear over the apparent accident, though he refused to answer questions.

And when the County Attorney’s Office decided not to prosecute him, they gave a familiar reason.

“Mr. Corbin has always claimed this was an accident, and the evidence gathered by the Police Department has been consistent with that,” said Kellie Johnson, then the chief criminal prosecutor in the office, in 2012.

But there have been two problems with that conclusion, from the moment Ayup was killed at the east-side home she and Corbin shared with their son, up until the day he was finally indicted on Aug. 28 this year.

One is that some of Ayup’s friends and family members suspected Corbin shot Ayup on purpose, citing Corbin’s drinking that day and his previous anger with her. The other is that even if it was an accident, there are at least two crimes in state law that cover unintentional killings — manslaughter and negligent homicide.

The sense of impunity is what has bothered Ayup’s friends and relatives all these years. They would not let go. Once, back in June of 2017, I ran into a group of them standing outside the downtown tower where the Pima County prosecutors have their offices. They were protesting the inaction against Corbin, as they had before. I spoke with them but, inexplicably, did not follow up.

It was around that time that Tucson City Councilman Steve Kozachik got involved — and he did follow up. Kozachik and staff member Ann Charles, who runs a small foundation, got to know Toni and Earl Solheid, Ayup’s aunt and uncle, who helped raise her.

Kozachik, an anti-gun-violence crusader, requested the Tucson Police Department reports on the investigation, and he compared files with what the Solheids had collected. They compiled as complete a record as they could, and then the foundation Charles works for agreed to hire private investigator Weaver Barkman, a retired Pima County Sheriff’s Department sergeant, to take a look.

“It became clear to me TPD had done a poor job presenting the case the first time, especially police presuming it was an accident,” Kozachik said. “I believe TPD went into the investigation with a presumption, and they validated their own presumption.”

Barkman concluded that the killing was not an accident but an act of domestic violence, something that follow-up police investigation did not substantiate. But at least the pressure got the cops to reopen the case.

The undisputed record provides some basis for suspicion. Drinking buddies said that after Corbin got off his shift as a meter man for Tucson Electric Power, he had three or four beers at O’Malleys on North Fourth Avenue. Then he motorcycled home.

Neighbors reported hearing screaming of multiple voices from Corbin and Ayup’s home around the time of the shooting. A friend of Ayup, Rachel Smith, told police that in the weeks leading up to the shooting, arguments between Ayup and Corbin “got worse and worse,” though there was no record of domestic-violence calls in police records.

Another friend told police how he had been around Corbin and his guns for years, and “I felt that he was, you know, pretty safe and familiar with them.” Yet Corbin said he was putting a new grip on his Glock 27 pistol when the fatal shot was fired.

Barkman added his own reconstruction of the scene and interpretation of the evidence to conclude the shooting was intentional.

“This was an abusive relationship,” he concluded. “Prison is full of people who were drunk when they killed their wives or girlfriends.”

Tucson police were not particularly impressed with Barkman’s analysis, which he handed over Jan. 3.

“He made our life difficult because he came up with a bunch of conspiracy theories about how it (the crime scene) was staged,” Capt. James Scott told me. “It looked like he was dead set on trying to say that Corbin set this thing up and killed Genna intentionally.”

Scott oversees criminal investigations for TPD now, but was not in that job back in 2012. He acknowledged that it was Kozachik’s persistence that got the department to take a new look at the case.

Scott noted that Tucson police arrested Corbin in July 2012 and accused him of manslaughter, but that when they brought the case to the Pima County Attorney’s Office, prosecutors refused to pursue it.

“We always felt that he was negligent in his actions and should have been held accountable,” Scott said.

So why didn’t prosecutors even take the case to a grand jury in 2012? After all, there is a crime called “negligent homicide,” defined by state law as causing the death of another person with criminal negligence. The more severe “manslaughter” — the crime Corbin is charged with now — requires “reckless” behavior by the defendant.

I asked a former Pima County prosecutor, Brad Roach, about that. Roach, a criminal defense attorney since 2005, recalled several cases in which a person unintentionally shot and killed somebody but was criminally charged anyway.

“If it’s not manslaughter, you go for negligent homicide,” Roach said. “I don’t know how anybody handling a gun unsafely and killing somebody is not negligent.”

The main difference Scott pointed to between the evidence collected in 2012 and that presented to prosecutors this year was, he said, “We got clarification from our armorer on the difference between an accidental discharge and an unintentional discharge.”

In 2012, a secondhand, undocumented opinion of the department’s armorer worked its way into the police case, suggesting that the sort of pistol Corbin was handling could have gone off accidentally. But this year, detectives and the armorer clarified that the pistol could not have been fired without someone pulling the trigger, even if it was an unintentional pull, or a reflex of some sort. It’s the distinction between accidental and unintentional that apparently made the difference.

Jonathan Mosher, the chief trial counsel for the Pima County Attorney’s Office, told me Thursday it is common for prosecutors to wait to pursue a case until investigators gather better evidence.

“That is not a particularly unusual situation,” he said. “That process goes on in many of these cases.”

“When additional facts are uncovered, we will reassess the case.”

But I’m left questioning why it took all this simply to get a grand-jury indictment. As much as they may have wanted to hold Corbin accountable, the police detectives apparently presented a somewhat flawed case to prosecutors.

And the prosecutors fell down on the job by neither asking for more information from the police, nor taking the case to grand jurors to see if they thought there was probable cause that Corbin had committed a crime.

It shouldn’t take all that to ensure a jury gets a chance to decide if a killing was a crime, or just a pure accident.

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