ABC15 exposes ‘astonishing and horrific’ conduct by decide, workers in main instances


Warning: This story incorporates phrases and pictures which are graphic and merciless.  

A Maricopa County Superior Court docket decide and her workers mocked and ridiculed individuals throughout hearings and trials by routinely emailing one another merciless and obscene statements, jokes, and memes.

The conduct occurred in main felony instances, together with high-profile capital murders.

Emails and inner information obtained by ABC15 present nobody was off-limits: Defendants, their households, jurors, witnesses, attorneys, even different courtroom staff and high courtroom officers.

The decide was Erin O’Brien Otis.

She and her workers had been additionally accused of frequently having inappropriate contact and communication with defendants, in keeping with confidential complaints and sealed paperwork.

A number of authorized specialists stated the “astonishing and horrific” conduct by Otis and her workers clearly violates state moral guidelines and judicial codes.

However Otis and her workers averted any self-discipline and public accountability.

The Arizona fee that investigates judges dismissed an in depth grievance with proof and scrubbed Otis’s title from their closing findings.

Throughout their investigation, Otis was allowed to resign.

Maricopa County Legal professional Allister Adel then employed Otis as a high-level prosecutor within the workplace’s capital case unit.

Otis declined to be interviewed.

However she launched a prolonged assertion by way of an MCAO spokesperson. Otis wrote she has “all the time tried to behave with integrity” and she or he takes “full duty” for what occurred.

[Otis’s full statement is copied at the end of this report.]


Erin O’Brien Otis joined the bench as a Maricopa County Superior Court docket Commissioner in 2012.

She got here from the Maricopa County Legal professional’s Workplace the place she specialised in prosecuting intercourse crime instances and was named “Prosecutor of the Yr” in 2010, information present.

Governor Doug Ducey appointed Otis as an official decide in 2016.

On the time, Ducey stated, “Her expertise as a Commissioner on each the household legislation and legal legislation benches will make her an impressive addition to the courtroom.”

However Otis would resign in 2020 whereas beneath investigation by the Arizona Fee on Judicial Conduct.

The case was prompted by data shared by Kelly Shafer, a former clerk with greater than a decade of expertise in Maricopa County Superior Court docket.

Shafer was transferred to Otis’s courtroom in 2017. She labored there till outing the conduct in 2019.

“I’m ashamed of myself for not coming ahead sooner. I reside with that daily,” Shafer instructed ABC15 in an interview. “I all the time instructed my youngsters that if you happen to watched somebody bullied and do nothing, you’re as unhealthy because the bully.”

Shafer, who not works for the Maricopa County Clerk of the Superior Court docket, stated she requested her bosses three totally different occasions to be transferred out of Otis’s courtroom.

“They instructed me if I needed to depart, they had been going to inform her it was at my request,” she stated. “So I rescinded. All thrice, I rescinded as a result of I feared retaliation.”

In early 2019, she outlined the conduct in Otis’s courtroom to her supervisors in a collection of detailed emails.

The knowledge prompted the clerk’s workplace to file an official grievance with the judicial fee and notify then-Presiding Decide Janet Barton.

The grievance — closely redacted by the fee to take away all names, dates, and case names and numbers — outlines many examples of alleged misconduct.

Along with the memes and emails mocking individuals in courtroom, it acknowledged Otis and her workers manipulated the judicial efficiency evaluate course of, had day by day ex parte communications with defendants, and even held a birthday celebration for the son of a six-time convicted defendant earlier than his sentencing.

Dave Biscobing is exposing extra concerning the birthday celebration and different allegations of improper contact with defendants. Watch the most recent of the (dis)Honorable investigative collection Monday on ABC15 Information at 6.

ABC15 has independently verified most of the allegations within the grievance filed with the fee.

The station obtained a group of emails and memes despatched from 2017 by way of 2019, along with sworn statements and courtroom movies.

When requested what the general public would suppose in the event that they knew concerning the habits happening, Shafer answered, “I’d hope they might be disgusted by it.”


On September 7, 2017, Juror #30 was embarrassed.

She was seated with dozens of potential jurors throughout choice from a two-week lengthy trial as Otis requested if anybody had any bodily situations that may make it tough to finish their responsibility.

Juror #30 spoke up.

“My situation is embarrassing. I don’t actually need to…”

Otis responded, “Okay, do you need to speak in personal?”

After the courtroom was cleared of different jurors, the girl instructed Otis, courtroom workers, and attorneys that she had a medical situation that gave her heavy and uncontrollable intervals, making it not possible to sit down by way of a trial that lengthy.

The decide thanked the girl and dismissed her from jury responsibility.

“I respect you bringing that to our consideration. I don’t need to put you in a state of affairs the place you’ll really feel uncomfortable or something like that,” Otis instructed her.

What Juror #30 didn’t know: Otis’s bailiff, Barbara Chavez, was busy discovering a merciless and graphic meme to mock her medical situation.

The meme was emailed to Otis and different courtroom staffers lower than a minute after the juror left the room, information and video present.

Chavez continues to be employed by the Maricopa County Superior Court docket system. An ABC15 request for remark despatched to a courtroom spokesperson was declined.

The e-mail is considered one of dozens of examples obtained by ABC15. The next messages are similar ones despatched to the fee for his or her investigation. They present the mocking and ridiculing of individuals in courtroom occurred in a number of instances spanning over years.


Shafer, who was copied on most of the messages, stated it was an “nearly day by day” prevalence.

“It was so pure for everybody that was there,” she stated. “There’s little doubt in my thoughts this had been happening for a very long time (earlier than I bought in Otis’s courtroom).”

On Nov. 15, 2017, through the trial of John Allen, who acquired a loss of life sentence after being convicted of murdering 10-year-old Ame Deal, Chavez and Otis exchanged a number of emails concerning the looks of individuals within the defendant’s household.

Chavez in contrast Allen’s household to film characters, together with cannibals from “The Hills Have Eyes” and “Chucky” from the horror movie “Little one’s Play.”

Arizona’s judicial ethic guidelines state that judges “shall carry out the duties of judicial workplace, together with administrative duties, with out bias or prejudice.”

The principles additionally clearly state that judges are answerable for their workers in the identical means.

Whereas a group of emails obtained by ABC15 present that Otis’s bailiff initiated most of the memes, the decide did reply and take part.

On October 11, 2018, Otis first initiated this e-mail chain about what a protection legal professional was carrying.

ABC15 has edited the beneath picture resulting from its graphic nature.

ABC15 obtained courtroom video from the listening to because the emails had been despatched.

The footage reveals Otis typing, have a look at her laptop a number of occasions, and twice look and smile in her bailiff’s course because the messages are being despatched and acquired.

Shafer instructed ABC15 the mocking and ridiculing went past emailed messages and memes.

“At one level, they took these memes, they printed them out, they laminated them and hung them on the wall within the division. So once you walked into the decide’s division, there was an entire wall,” Shafer stated. “After which lastly, the courtroom reporter went out and acquired somewhat photograph album e book, and we’re like, please take them off your wall and put them in your little hatebook.”

“Hatebook” is what Shafer stated she referred to as the album — not essentially what Otis and her workers referred to as it.

In an announcement, Otis “completely refutes” there was an “album of memes and pictures.”


In March 2021, the Arizona Fee on Judicial Conduct dismissed the 2019 grievance towards Otis.

ABC15 additionally confirmed the fee dismissed a 2017 grievance towards Otis that alleged inappropriate communication with a defendant.

Beneath Arizona Supreme Court docket guidelines, information associated to the fee’s investigations and deliberations are confidential.

The fee additionally doesn’t maintain any public conferences.

Ultimate orders in dismissed instances are closely redacted and anonymized. Beneath is the general public order filed for the 2019 grievance towards Otis.

The fee’s order acknowledged the improper memes and emails however didn’t handle any of the opposite critical allegations alleged within the underlying grievance.

The fee’s guidelines and pointers state that members have the discretion to launch extra data and information if it’s within the curiosity of justice or the general public.

However an ABC15 request for added materials to raised perceive why the fee dismissed the complaints was denied.

ABC15 offered proof of the memes, emails, and different materials to a number of authorized ethics specialists.

“If you hear that occuring at a state courtroom, which is deciding whether or not or not individuals reside or die, it’s astonishing and horrific,” stated Benjamin Edwards, a legislation professor on the College of Nevada Las Vegas. “It’s not one thing I’d ever hope to see.”

Edwards stated there are very clear violations of Arizona’s judicial and moral codes.

Charles Geyh, a legislation professor at Indiana College, agrees.

“[It’s] habits that you simply usually affiliate with excessive schoolers,” Geyh stated. “It actually does undermine the integrity of the operation.”

He added, “These are issues that signify anyone that’s not taking their position as significantly as they need to, and that’s troubling… And I feel it’s a great factor she’s off the bench.”

Consultants additionally stated they consider the State Bar of Arizona ought to have investigated Otis to find out her health as an legal professional.

However state bar officers stated they had been by no means notified. “The Fee on Judicial Conduct didn’t ship us any data associated to their investigation of Erin Otis,” in keeping with an emailed assertion.


Whereas nonetheless beneath judicial investigation, the Maricopa County Legal professional’s Workplace formally employed Otis in February 2020.

Nonetheless, the previous decide and MCAO had been negotiating and speaking about phrases for a job as a high-level prosecutor for months main as much as her rent.

County Legal professional Allister Adel was concerned, emails present.

On October 24, 2019, Otis immediately despatched Adel an e-mail together with her resume connected.

Consultants stated the timeline raises issues about main conflicts of curiosity.

Otis was presiding over at the least one capital case whereas speaking with MCAO a few job prosecuting capital instances, information present. Throughout that point, she dominated on important motions and sentenced a capital defendant in November 2019. [ABC15 will report more on these conflicts in upcoming stories.]

As an MCAO prosecutor, Otis is presently assigned to at the least a dozen homicide and capital instances, information present.


Otis declined ABC15’s interview request, which stays open.

Her full assertion:

For greater than 20 years as a public servant, I’ve all the time tried to behave with integrity.  I’ve all the time taken my moral tasks significantly, as a lawyer and a decide.  The allegations that you’re referring to in your e-mail, which had been submitted to the Fee on Judicial Conduct three years in the past, had been critical and intensely troubling to me.  

On the outset, I need to emphasize that every one of those allegations had been investigated by the Judicial Conduct Fee, and just one was sustained by it.  Particularly, the Fee discovered that there have been events the place I didn’t appropriately supervise my workers.  The opposite allegations had been unfounded and dismissed.  

To be clear, at no time did I ever take part in ex parte communications.  Nor was “an album of memes and pictures” ever stored in my division.  As on your inquiry a few birthday celebration in my courtroom, a number of years in the past, my workers did present a 2 year-old boy, who was current within the courtroom on his birthday along with his dad and mom (who had been the defendant and sufferer), with a donut and I did recommend these current within the courtroom sing pleased birthday to him.  My workers additionally offered the kid a toy to play with, as he was getting stressed within the courtroom ready.  This household had beforehand been in my courtroom, on a number of events, with a number of youngsters, as a result of lack of childcare out there to them.  Attorneys representing either side had been additionally current and nobody raised any issues. 

Throughout my eight years as a judicial officer, I don’t declare do have all the time completed every thing completely.  Looking back, the state of affairs referring to the emails and/or memes over e-mail ought to have been discouraged and stopped.  I admit that I didn’t deal with that in one of the simplest ways and have taken full duty for it.  I’ve additionally taken full duty for something I stated over e-mail that lacked skilled boundaries.

As famous above, I used to be a Superior Court docket Judicial Officer for eight years.  Throughout that point, I acquired wonderful judicial efficiency evaluate scores.  These occasions that occurred a number of years in the past constituted a really temporary, and restricted instance of my judicial tenure.  I took duty for them fairly a while in the past.

As for the allegations concerning “an album of memes and pictures”, a birthday celebration in my courtroom, or ex parte communications with both aspect, I completely refute the claims, and did so on the time they had been made.  An investigation by the Fee on Judicial Conduct has cleared me of any wrong-doing with regard to these allegations.

I encourage you to evaluate the connected confidential letter despatched to me by the Fee on Judicial Conduct, after a really prolonged and diligent investigation, and the foregoing assertion from me, previous to any report concerning this matter.

The connected confidential letter from the Fee is beneath.

[EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first report in ABC15’s ongoing “(dis)Honorable” investigation. Upcoming reports will include expert analysis, a lack of transparency and public accountability with judicial oversight, and MCAO’s hiring of the judge. Chief Investigative Reporter Dave Biscobing can be reached at]

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