SALT LAKE CITY — Rape and sexual assault victims would have a second chance to pursue criminal charges after a prosecutor declines their case under a pending proposal at the state Capitol.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Karianne Lisonbee, estimates that up to 30 women have sought her help in providing such a new path to hold their perpetrators to account in recent years.
“Their stories of how the criminal justice system handled their cases — or didn’t investigate their cases very much — they’re astounding,” Lisonbee, R-Syracuse, said. “The victim is kind of left out in the cold, feeling like there was an inadequate attempt to bring their perpetrator to justice, or at least to bring it to trial.”
Her measure, HB281, would grant the Utah Attorney General’s Office the authority to review first-degree felony investigations anew and possibly file criminal charges after a county attorney passes on the case or waits more than six months to analyze it.
One of the women who shared her story with Lisonbee, an Ogden mother in her 30s, told police she went to a get-together with friends in the fall and was sitting with other partygoers on the couch when two suddenly removed her pants and began sexually assaulting her while a third held her down, she recalled in an interview.
Her decision to involve the authorities didn’t come easily.
“Did I ask for this? Did I invite them? Was it my fault?” she remembers thinking. She locked herself in her room and sobbed for a day before finally deciding to report the incident in October and go to a hospital for a rape exam. But before a forensics lab could complete analysis of the evidence, she received a call from a victim advocate in February who told her the case wouldn’t go forward, but didn't elaborate.
Even though her report had not yet reached a prosecutor’s desk, the woman said she is heartened by Lisonbee’s effort to ensure cases are thoroughly investigated and carefully reviewed.
“At least it replenishes a little bit of hope,” she said. "It was a five-month long investigation with no outcome." The Deseret News typically does not name victims of sexual assault.
Lisonbee notes that prosecutors are bound to an ethical code of filing charges only when they believe there’s enough evidence to support reasonable likelihood of conviction.
Their adherence to the standard sometimes prevents them from seeking out more evidence when a case has not yet been fully investigated, Lisonbee said. She said her measure would help to make sure attorneys and investigators exhaust all avenues before a final decision is made.
Paul Cassell, an attorney working with the Utah Crime Victims Legal Clinic, said the bill is "really a fallback measure for those rare cases where there’s been a well-founded criminal case and it goes to the prosecutor and a charge has never been filed."
"Prosecutors do a wonderful job 99 percent of the time in Utah," he said. "But there are rare cases where mistakes are made.”
Reed Richards, with the Statewide Association of Prosecutors, testified in favor of the bill at a legislative committee meeting last week.
In another pending effort similar to the legislative measure, four women have petitioned the Utah Supreme Court to assign a new prosecutor to their cases after county attorneys declined to file charges. Cassell, who is representing the women, said they will ask the Utah Attorney General’s Office to take on their cases if the bill passes and becomes law.
Richard Mauro, executive director of the Salt Lake Legal Defenders Association, said he questions if the bill is necessary and believes the attorney general already can pursue such investigations.
“I understand that people are frustrated, and in some instances rightly so, but there are just some cases, for purposes of lack of evidence, that just can’t be proven all the time,” Mauro said. “When you then sort of tip over that apple cart by allowing these other alternative reviews, I think it’s a bit concerning to me, because that call’s been made, and it’s usually been made with some degree of thoughtfulness.”
Lisonbee's bill would apply to the most serious crimes, first-degree felonies, which include rape, object rape and murder. She said the attorney general’s office can now intervene and review those cases, but typically only where there’s been an abuse of discretion, generally meaning a clear error or unreasonable conclusion on the county attorney's part.
A different Utah proposal centered on investigations in murders, missing persons and violent felonies would allow victims to ask the investigating agency for a review one year after the crime.
While initial leads in those cases may have been exhausted, Lisonbee said, there still often is evidence not yet gathered in sexual assault cases, which often never results in criminal charges.
The bill has a roughly $200,000 annual price tag to cover the cost of a prosecutor and investigator in the attorney general's office.
The House Judiciary Committee, which Lisonbee chairs, voted 10-0 in favor of the bill last week. It awaits a vote in the full House.