The Arizona Supreme Court today rejected every aspect of convicted Minuteman murderer Shawna Forde’s appeal, notably including her attempts to escape the death penalty. In a sweeping ruling issued this morning, the court found no reason to derail the nativist leader’s death sentence. Instead, the court affirmed her convictions and sentences, while ordering that her robbery sentences run concurrently rather than consecutively — a meaningless adjustment for someone on Death Row.
Forde, now 46 years old, was convicted by a Tucson jury in 2011 of first-degree murder in the home-invasion shooting deaths of Raul “Junior” Flores and his 9-year-old daughter, Brisenia, at their residence in rural Arivaca, Ariz. The case focused national attention on the racism and violence that were at the core of the Minuteman anti-immigration movement, whose members were once memorably described by President George W. Bush as “vigilantes.” The horror of the case — Brisenia was a beautiful little girl who was shot in the face as she cowered terrified on a couch with her puppy — helped to bring about the eventual collapse of Minuteman movement.
Despite evidence put on about such mitigating factors as Forde’s abusive childhood and her supposed mental incapacities, the jurors in her case nonetheless unanimously voted for a death sentence.
The murders were part of a grand scheme concocted and led by Forde, a native of Washington state, to construct a large militia training compound on the Arizona border for her border-watch organization, an offshoot of the larger Minuteman vigilante movement. Forde intended to fund the enterprise by ripping off drug-cartel marijuana smugglers at their drug houses.
Flores was indeed a small-time independent smuggler, but Forde and her gang of killers — including gunman Jason Bush, now also on Death Row, and a local enabler named Albert Gaxiola, behind bars for life — invaded his home, not his safe house, and wound up both empty- and bloody-handed. The lone survivor – Gina Gonzalez, Flores’ wife and Brisenia’s mother, who lived by pretending to be dead after Bush shot her – eventually drove the three from her home in a hail of gunfire. Behind them they left a bloody DNA trail that took authorities straight to Bush and Forde.
After the arrests of Forde, Bush and Gaxiola, Forde’s former associates in the Minuteman movement fled from their onetime protégé. National leaders of the Minuteman movement — particularly its co-founders, Chris Simcox of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps (MCDC) and Jim Gilchrist, leader of the Minuteman Project — hastily tried to put distance between themselves and Forde and her Minuteman American Defense (MAD) group.
Simcox claimed that his organization had kicked out Forde back in 2007, when she was accused of lying and pretending to be a senior leader in the Washington state chapter of MCDC. "We knew that Shawna Forde was not just an unsavory character but pretty unbalanced, as well," he said. Not only that, he claimed that this proved his organization had done a good job of weeding out extremists from its ranks.
Simcox's MCDC spokesperson, Carmen Mercer, even decried the media coverage of the Forde case in a press statement. "The media continues to flame the fires of ethnic friction and faux racism through their ridiculous reporting that this is a Minuteman crime — the media is irrational and reckless in perpetrating this despicable propaganda," she declared. "The Arivaca home invasion had nothing to do with the Minutemen, nothing to do with race or illegal immigration, it had to do with psychopathic criminals preying on other criminals."
Similarly, Jim Gilchrist rapidly took down material from his Minuteman Project website that supported Forde's MAD group and announced his "condolences to the victims" while claiming that Forde and her associates were "rogues" and that his relationship with her was never "extensive." "They happened to use the Minuteman movement as a guise, as a mask," he said.
However, my investigation of these claims and characterizations makes clear that they are patently false. Not only did both Simcox and Gilchrist have extensive dealings with Forde over the years, but both repeatedly courted her and her organization. Simcox didn't chase Forde out of the MCDC; he begged Forde not to leave his fold. In the case of Gilchrist, one witness to a conversation between him and Forde says that the two discussed her plan to finance the movement by ripping off drug dealers in 2008 – and that Gilchrist seemed enthusiastic about it.
One of the components of Forde’s appeal was her claim that publicity about the case in the local press – which was in reality fairly subdued – prejudiced her jury pool and entitled her to a new trial. But the court found otherwise.
“The publicity surrounding this case was not so pervasive and prejudicial that the court should have presumed prejudice,” the justices wrote. “Most of the publicity occurred in the immediate aftermath of the crimes — approximately eighteen months before trial. Moreover, most news accounts were essentially factual. We have held that the trial court properly refused to presume prejudice under similar circumstances.”
They may now be few and far between, but Forde still has defenders who claim that she was railroaded in a government plot intended to smear the Minuteman movement. One of her old border-watching allies, a former Simcox sidekick who calls herself "Laine Lawless" (real name: Roberta Dill), runs a Justice For Shawna Forde that describes the double murderer as a “political agenda prisoner.”