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Judge known as compassionate, fair

Prosecutors and defenders alike voice respect

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While a stunned community reacts to Paul Wayment's suicide, the legal community is undergoing a double shock — sorrow for Wayment and concern for 3rd District Judge Robert Hilder.

Hilder surprised prosecutors and defense attorneys when he imposed a 30-day jail sentence for Wayment in the death of Wayment's 2 1/2-year-old son, Gage. The 38-year-old father pleaded no contest in June to class A misdemeanor negligence and prosecutors, in turn, agreed not to seek jail time.

However, Hilder said "some acts call out for a response" when sentencing Wayment.

Upon hearing of Wayment's suicide, Hilder issued a written statement Wednesday saying that, "It is a judge's worst nightmare that his or her actions may lead to unforeseen and tragic human consequences. The death of Paul Wayment such a tragedy."

Hilder said he was "devastated" and "hurt deeply" for Wayment and his loved ones.

"The reasons for my decision (for the jail sentence) were carefully considered over many days, and I stated those reasons as clearly and as fully as I could from the bench," Hilder wrote. "If the jail sentence I imposed was a factor, large or small, in Mr. Wayment's decision, I regret that result with all my heart, but I cannot change my decision."

While Hilder can be firm with certain cases, he also has a long-standing reputation for being a compassionate and fair-minded judge.

He has been known to explain at length, and in an almost fatherly way, the terms of probation to someone whose life is at a crossroads — one more clash with the law means prison but following the rules will mean a productive and happy life.

Hilder is respected by prosecutors and defense attorneys alike.

"There probably is no more decent person in the legal profession than Judge Hilder," said attorney Ed Brass, who has appeared before Hilder many times.

"He is one of the kindest, most compassionate, gentlest people to sit on the bench," Brass said. "Any loss of human life is going to pain him greatly because of the kind of person he is."

Brass acknowledged Hilder can be tough when necessary but always treats people in his court with dignity and is not afraid to give someone a second chance.

"He's a judge. He's not a pushover," Brass said. "He's a person who thinks about cases carefully and does what he thinks is fair. He will give people a chance at probation that other judges might not take a risk on."

Scott Williams, a former public defender who now is in private practice, holds a similar view.

"Judge Hilder is a standout, in my opinion, for really going above and beyond even the requirements of his position to try to fully appreciate, understand and sympathize with the human condition," Williams said. "He is extremely humane and conscientious in the way he applies his rulings."

Salt Lake County deputy district attorney Kent Morgan agrees.

"I think Judge Hilder is a very fair and gentlemanly judge and is quite patient. I think of all the judges that I've practiced before, Judge Hilder tends to be more compassionate and attempts to see things from the defendant's point of view."

Morgan also said Hilder tries, whenever possible, to use the criminal justice system to change people's behavior for the better. "His sentencing tends to be less harsh than other judges in the district. He frequently sentences with a view toward rehabilitative efforts in contrast to efforts to be punitive."

Alan Kirkwood, whose daughter, Rebecca Gallagher, was killed by a drunken driver in 1997, said he has enormous respect for Hilder and especially appreciated the judge's sensitive but straightforward remarks during court hearings.

Hilder sentenced the driver, Juan R. Hernandez, to zero to five years in prison, which was the maximum sentence permitted under the law at that time.

The judge said the apologetic Hernandez seemed to be "a fundamentally decent man" but "society has a right to say some results of conduct are intolerable and a price must be paid. It's a small price to pay for a great, great loss."

"I think what Judge Hilder said was very appropriate," Kirkwood said. "I think his judgment was exactly on the mark."

As for this latest tragedy regarding Wayment, Kirkwood said, "I have nothing but the highest regard for Judge Hilder. I know he was put in a pretty tough spot. I would not want to do what he has to do every day."

E-mail: lindat@desnews.com