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Salt Lake district attorney's race pits county's top prosecutor against one of his deputies

SALT LAKE CITY — In the race for Salt Lake County's top prosecutor, current District Attorney Sim Gill faces a challenge from within his own office.

Nathan Evershed, a Republican and first-time political candidate, says that if elected, he would repair what he says are broken relationships with police and the public. Gill, his boss, is seeking a third term and says he is eager to build on criminal justice reforms.

"I respect his skill," Gill, a Democrat, said of his opponent. "I have a skill, as well."

The candidates agree the county's top cop should pursue the death penalty in only the most egregious cases. They disagree, perhaps most profoundly, on the state of their own office.

Gill says he has long advocated for therapeutic approaches to criminal justice and helped start the state's first mental health court. His office has published reviews of officer-involved shootings to be transparent, he said, and he calls for more study of the role racism and poverty play in landing Utahns in prison and jail. Earlier this month, he announced a new panel to review possible wrongful convictions.

Evershed, a homicide prosecutor, says a full-time Spanish interpreter in the office is needed, along with heightened efforts with police to keep kids out of gangs. He believes the conviction panel has long been in the office's sights and its timing just ahead of the election is suspect. A "toxic culture" stemming from Gill's leadership, he said, has led to a drain of talented attorneys and other employees over the last several years.

Since 2011, when Gill took office, overall turnover among attorneys and others has risen from about 5 percent to 10 percent as of September 2018, according to figures provided by the office. Of those who left last year after having graduated from a probationary period, 15 people, or about 6 percent of the total office, resigned voluntarily from the county.

"The real story are those that were coming into my office on the way out of our office, and telling me, personally, how frustrating this has been, to now walk away from an office that they loved," Evershed said. He would bring a new leadership style, he said, that better considers his colleagues' opinions.

Gill counters that many of those who left have been lured to other counties or private firms that can pay more, and some have taken jobs on the other side of the bench, becoming judges.

Evershed and Gill have interpreted the data differently, with Evershed saying the turnover over the last three years is about 30 percent, and Gill saying it is much lower.

The job can be difficult and thankless at times, Gill said, but he emphasized he does not have a higher office in his immediate sights.

"Right now, this is where I am. I came here to make a generational change for this office," Gill said. The change includes upgrading the office's computer system and moving into its own new building in 2018.

Evershed criticizes the office's prosecutions of two former Republican attorneys general, Mark Shurtleff and John Swallow. Neither man was convicted, leading to lawsuits against the office and a perception among Utahns and officers that politics was behind the public corruption charges, Evershed said in an interview.

He also believes police have lost confidence in Gill in part because after Gill charged West Valley City police officer Shaun Cowley with manslaughter in the 2012 shooting death of 21-year-old Danielle Willard, a judge ruled there wasn't enough evidence for the case to go to trial.

"The public's trust in our office has eroded," Evershed said.

Gill said his office has a responsibility to try even the tough cases.

Gill said recent probes into police-involved shootings have been made more difficult after three officers who fired their guns declined to speak with investigators.

"That's their call," he said, adding the trend is not unique to Utah as police unions across the country urge members to invoke their Fifth Amendment right. "I can only make decisions based on the evidence."

But Evershed said the officers' silence points to mistrust of the office.

"They believe that politics have been infused in this decision-making," he said.

Last week, four women who reported sexual assaults to police asked Utah's Supreme Court to assign a prosecutor to their cases, which previously were declined by Gill's office. Gill said prosecutors must make sure there's enough evidence to file a charge, but victims' rights are important.

The current district attorney struggles with the death penalty, Gill said in a recent interview, but he declined to say whether he opposes or approves of it. He believes Utah lawmakers should consider winnowing the circumstances allowing prosecutors to pursue the death penalty to only a handful of aggravating factors — including targeting police for murder, carrying out mass killings and child abuse deaths. Evershed said the option to pursue capital punishment is "OK" and something he has weighed very carefully.

Evershed, 40, was preparing for a career in estate planning when a friend suggested he apply to be a clerk in the district attorney's office.

"Everything changed after that," he said. "It's something new every day."

He moved on to prosecute traffic tickets and eventually to arguing the county's case in high-profile killings.

A scene from Gill's childhood led him to pursue a career as a prosecutor. Before moving to the United States with his family, he saw a group of men beating another man who they believed had committed a crime in his native Punjab, India, and it has made him want to ensure those held to account are treated fairly, he said.

When it comes to endorsements, the Salt Lake Valley Law Enforcement Association has backed Evershed, among other police unions.

"Nathan has a great name among investigators and officers," said Johnny Ngo, association president. Many members, he said, have been frustrated that the office in recent years has declined to charge suspects in some car theft cases even after they confess, Ngo said.

Gill emphasized he is independent from police, but his office also holds trainings for officers, including on how to use the overdose-reversing drug naloxone.

Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams, also a Democrat, has endorsed Gill, along with city mayors in the county. McAdams said he and Gill have worked together to make the county safer and spend public money efficiently.

"Sim shares my values of effective, transparent government," McAdams said in a statement, "and he knows the importance of creating relationships across the aisle."

Gill has outraised his challenger, bringing in about $288,600, including money carried over from the 2014 election cycle, while Evershed has netted roughly $117,200, according to campaign finance reports from September, the most recent available.

In September, Utah and Salt Lake County Democratic leaders filed a complaint that Evershed brought in contributions from his parents that topped county limits. He said he took responsibility, returned the money, and the misstep shows he knows prosecuting better than politics.