A one-time judicial candidate awaiting trial for perjury connected to a document she filed with the Cochise County Elections Department in April 2020 has asked a judge to force the Arizona Attorney General’s Office to obtain a new criminal indictment, if it can.
Sandra Finch Russell ran in November 2020 as an Independent for a seat on the Cochise County Superior Court. She was indicted by a state grand jury in October 2021 for one count of felony perjury in connection to a Declaration of Qualification Russell signed indicating she would be a “citizen of Arizona for 7 years before my election.”
The Arizona Constitution only requires a superior court judicial candidate have five years of “residency” in Arizona as of the date the term begins. But there was an interesting twist to Russell’s candidacy – her admission under oath during a September 2020 election challenge hearing that she voted in Georgia in May 2016.
Despite the out-of-state voting issue, Cochise County’s presiding judge at the time ruled Russell was eligible to be on the ballot as the preponderance of evidence showed she was a resident of Arizona prior to Jan. 4, 2016. That, said the judge, satisfied the constitutional qualification.
Despite that ruling, Assistant Attorney General Todd Lawson went before a state grand jury in Maricopa County more than one year later to seek an indictment against Russell for perjury. The criminal charge alleges Russell violated state law when she “knowingly signed” the Declaration of Qualification with its seven-year reference in April 2020.
Judge Michael Peterson from Graham County is assigned to Russell’s case to avoid any conflicts from having a Cochise County judge hear the matter. Earlier this month, Russell’s defense attorney asked Peterson for a court order remanding the case back to the state grand jury for another presentation to see if Lawson can obtain a indictment.
If no indictment is issued then the felony perjury charge against Russell must be dismissed.
Russell’s attorney, Louis Fidel, contends the initial grand jury presentment by Lawson was “replete with legal and factual errors and other improprieties.” As a result, Russell was “denied her substantial due process right to a fair and unbiased presentation of evidence before a grand jury that had been accurately informed of the facts and accurately instructed on all of the applicable law,” according to Fidel.
The errors alleged by Fidel include grand jurors not being instructed on the factors in state law for determining residency, not being provided the legal definition of citizenship, and not being presented “abundant exculpatory information known to the state” as a result of the election challenge hearing.
“Ms. Russell’s statements in the nomination paper were based on the fact that Ms. Russell married her husband, a longtime resident of Sierra Vista, Arizona, in September 2013, moved to Arizona with her young daughter from a previous marriage, and has resided and intended to reside in Arizona since that time,” according to Fidel.
The motion challenging the grand jury proceeding was filed Jan. 3, the same day Fidel filed a 511-page supplement in support of a motion filed last month seeking to hold any potential jury trial in another county due to extensive media and social media coverage in Cochise County.
Fidel’s change of venue motion notes Arizona’s Rules of Criminal Procedure entitle a party to change the place of trial to another county if the party demonstrate a fair and impartial trial is not possible in the original county for any reason other than the trial judge’s interest or prejudice.
“The state’s claim is, in essence, that Ms. Russell committed fraud upon the office of Cochise County Superior Court judge and the voters of Cochise County with respect to her qualifications for office,” Fidel argued. “Under these circumstances, Ms. Russell maintains that she cannot receive a fair trial in Cochise County as the court, itself, and the jurors in her case (which will be drawn from a pool of qualified resident electors of Cochise County) are the alleged victims in the case.”
A Jan. 27 hearing is slated on Russell’s two motions. Peterson has already scheduled the four-day trial to begin April 5, although where the trial will be held -if it is held- won’t be decided until the hearing.
One mystery solved by Fidel’s motion for remand is that one of Russell’s judicial competitors, Anne Carl, filed the complaint which eventually led to the criminal indictment.
READ MORE ABOUT RUSSELL’S CASE HERE