SALT LAKE CITY — The chief federal judge in Washington, D.C. resigned on the same day a Salt Lake woman accused him of repeatedly raping her when she was a witness in a high-profile Utah murder case 35 years ago.
U.S. District Judge Richard W. Roberts stepped down Wednesday citing medical reasons. His resignation letter to the White House said he has become "permanently disabled" from performing his duties.
Roberts' attorneys also issued a statement denying Terry Mitchell's claim that he sexually assaulted her over several weeks when she was 16 during the civil rights trial of Joseph Paul Franklin.
Franklin, a white supremacist who wanted to start a race war, fatally shot two black men who were jogging with Mitchell and another white woman near Salt Lake's Liberty Park in August 1980.
Mitchell, 51, filed a lawsuit against Roberts in federal court in Salt Lake City on Wednesday.
Lawyers for Roberts, 63, acknowledged an intimate, consensual relationship, but called the sexual assault allegations "categorically false" and said they would vigorously challenge them in court. Roberts, assigned by the U.S. Department of Justice as a lead prosecutor in the Franklin case, was unmarried and 27 at the time.
"Roberts acknowledges that the relationship was indeed a bad lapse in judgment. However, the relationship did not occur until after the trial and had no bearing on the outcome of that trial,” according to the statement from his attorneys in Washington D.C., led by Reid Weingarten.
Mitchell's lawyer, former Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson, responded to the judge's statement with one of his own, saying it's "utterly disgusting and disgraceful" for Roberts' lawyers to downplay his action as a lapse in judgment.
"Roberts followed the child molester's playbook and calculatedly chose a particularly vulnerable victim, gained her trust, kept her isolated, created secrecy around their relationship, and controlled every aspect of their interactions," Anderson said.
Mitchell alleges in her lawsuit that Roberts met with her many times to prepare her to testify at the Franklin trial. After one meeting, Roberts took her to a restaurant and to his hotel room where he raped her twice, the lawsuit says.
Roberts "intimidated, coerced and manipulated" Mitchell to have sex nearly every day for several weeks, according to the lawsuit. Mitchell said she was vulnerable from the shooting and past sexual assaults, including a brutal rape six months before she met Roberts.
Mitchell says Roberts threatened that if she said anything, Franklin's case would end in a mistrial. He also told her Franklin would come back and kill her and her family, said Spencer Austin, criminal division chief for the Utah Attorney General's Office.
Roberts also told Mitchell he might end his pending engagement to be with her, according to the lawsuit.
Mitchell says she suppressed memories of what happened shortly after, and only began to recall them after receiving two emails from Roberts in November 2013, on the same day Franklin was executed in Missouri for other killings.
On the advice of an attorney, Mitchell took her allegations to the attorney general's office, which started an investigation in the summer of 2014. Paul Cassell, a University of Utah law professor and former federal judge, reviewed the findings.
The attorney general's office released a copy of Cassell's report on Wednesday. He wrote that the 16-year-old Mitchell could consent to sex under Utah law at the time and her allegations of coercion weren't strong enough to file criminal charges.
Cassell concluded that Roberts may not have committed a crime but appears to have acted unethically and likely violated DOJ rules for attorney conduct.
The attorney general's office referred the report to the U.S. Attorney's Office for Utah, the DOJ and the House and Senate judiciary committees.
Contributing: Associated Press