Arizona is in the news again for a murder case with political overtones. On February 14, 2001, the jury deliberated for only a few hours before finding Shawna Forde guilty of two counts of first degree murder. She was convicted of the May 30, 2009 murders of Raul Flores and his nine-year-old daughter Brisenia, and the attempted murder of Brisenia's mother, Gina Gonzales.

The case made national news because Ms. Forde was described as an "anti-illegal immigration activist." It was reported that she planned the home-invasion and robbery to finance her anti-illegal immigration group. This case raises questions about the heated political atmosphere in Arizona and reminds us of the recent Tuscon shootings by Jared Loughner. Loughner shot and gravely wounded the Democratic Arizona Representative Gabrielle Giffords. He killed six people and wounded fourteen others. I wrote about his history of mental instability in my recent blog post:

The Loughner case led many to question how mentally ill individuals are affected by political and social movements. Ms. Forde also had a history of mental instability and a political agenda. She joined the Minutemen Civil Defense Corps in 2007. This activist organization, established in 2005, has as a mission, "To secure United States borders and coastal boundaries against unlawful and unauthorized entry of all individuals, contraband, and foreign military."

Ms. Forde left, or was expelled from this organization in February 2007. It has been reported that members of the organization found her to be too "unstable." The founder of the Minutemen Civil Defense Corps, Chris Simcox, told reporters, "We knew that Shawna Forde was not just an unsavory character but pretty unbalanced, as well."

Ms. Forde formed her own group, the Minutemen American Defense (M.A.D.). It was not a large organization; it was thought to have only fourteen members. Individuals known to Forde reported that she had a history of robbing individuals she believed were drug dealers to raise money for her group. She used the term "Delta One Operations," to describe her actions. One ex-member, Chuck Stonex, told reporters that Forde's dream was to purchase property in southern Arizona to set up a base for her organization.

Ms. Forde did not enter the Flores-Gonzalez home alone. It is thought that she committed the crime with two accomplices, Albert Robert Gaxiola and Jason Eugene Bush. Although she was not accused of being the actual shooter, Ms. Forde was considered to be the ringleader.

The home invasion seemed carefully planned. The three assailants dressed in camouflage; they pretended to be law officers in order to gain admittance into the home. Ms. Gonzalez was able to call 911. She told the operator, "They told us that somebody had escaped jail or something, they wanted to come in and look at my house...And they just shot my husband and they shot my daughter and they shot me. Oh, my God, ma'am, I can't believe this is happening. ... I can't believe they killed my family."

The call included this:
Ms. Gonzalez: "They shot me and I pretended like I was dead. My daughter was crying. They shot her, too."

Operator: "Are they still there, the people who, that shot them?"

Ms. Gonzalez: "They're coming back in! They're coming back in!" (Gunfire is heard.)
This is a death penalty case. Death penalty cases contain two phases. First is the trial to decide whether the defendant is factually innocent or guilty. The second phase is the penalty phase during which the same jurors decide whether or not the defendant should be executed. They base their decision by weighing what is termed the aggravating and mitigating factors.

The penalty phase of the Forde case concluded. The jury deliberated to decide whether or not to recommend the death penalty. As a forensic psychologist I have worked on death penalty cases. I have evaluated defendants to assess whether they had mitigating factors such as mental deficits, mental illnesses or a history of physical or sexual abuse.

Ms. Forde's mitigating factors were presented during the penalty phase of her trial. Evidence of low intellectual ability was presented by her defense attorney, Eric Larsen. It was also reported that she suffered a stroke. Larsen described his client as a "broken person" who had been physically and sexually abused during childhood. He posed this question to the jury: "Are we the type of society that says ‘We're going to put you down because you are broken... or are we the kind of society that says segregation is enough?'"

Ms. Forde's criminal history began in adolescence. She had been arrested and convicted of burglary, theft and prostitution. Her social life was equally troubled. She had married four times. One of her husbands had even sought an order of protection, alleging that she'd physically assaulted him.

Larsen told the jury, "Pain is what makes Shawna Forde who she is. We carry it with us today the same way we carried it as a child."

The jury also weighed the aggravating factors. They considered the suffering of the victims. It has been reported that Brisenia pleaded, "Please don't shoot me," before Bush shot her twice in the head.

The prosecutor, Rick Unklesbay, told the jury during his closing arguments that Ms. Forde was the ringleader. It was reported that, after she realized that Ms. Gonzalez had survived, she told one of her accomplices, "Hey! She's still alive! Get back in there and take care of her!"

The prosecutor concluded with this: "There is not an ounce of evidence that she should be shown leniency...All we ask is that you do justice."

The jury completed the penalty phase deliberation yesterday. They voted for the death penalty.
Their decision must have been unanimous. If they had not been able to reach a unanimous decision, the judge would have sentenced Ms. Forde to life in prison.

Ms. Forde will become the third woman to enter Arizona's death row. Her alleged accomplices are scheduled to be tried later in 2011. Mr. Bush's trial will begin on March 15th and Mr. Gaxiola's on June 1. They are both facing the death penalty.

About the Author

Cheryl Paradis, Psy.D.

Cheryl Paradis, Psy.D., is an associate professor of psychology at Marymount Manhattan College.

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