SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah County Attorney’s Office has dissolved its special victims unit focused on prosecuting sex crimes and domestic violence — a move that critics say is harmful to victims and threatens community safety.
“It’s been really successful for us, so to see that torn apart to a degree has been frustrating,” said Utah County Sheriff Mike Smith.
“These are our most vulnerable in our society, when we’re talking sex abuse against children and women. And that’s where our emphasis needs to be, is on them and making it better for them.”
Utah County Attorney David Leavitt made the change last year, scattering the group’s attorneys across other teams under the idea they could train their colleagues in prosecuting the complex cases. He said the specialty group isn’t needed and takes resources away from other issues.
The shift is one of several in the office that have divided the broader law enforcement and legal communities during Leavitt’s first year in office. He also seeks to offer fewer plea deals and take more cases to trial, and is moving away from prosecuting low-level drug offenses.
Leavitt said his approach includes a hard line on ethics. Earlier this year, three of his prosecutors resigned as they were being investigated for attending a Utah Jazz game with a defense attorney who bought the lower-bowl tickets estimated at $240 each.
Special victims units a common practice
Nationally, special victim units are commonplace, established under the thinking that victims should work with a single team of specially trained lawyers and advocates throughout the court process.
The attorneys typically are trained in how to avoid retraumatizing their clients, understanding the forensic evidence and explaining the complicated legal process to victims.
In Utah County, opponents of the change say it means many who survive brutal crimes often now have their cases handled by a novice prosecutor, while expert special victims attorneys are too busy to dedicate the time and attention that they once did.
They say some clients who deal with a rotating case of attorneys under Leavitt’s direction have lost confidence in the justice system.
“I would say that every victim that we’ve had from the time he’s taken office has been harmed by his policies, because they are shuffled around so much,” said a former prosecutor in the special victims unit who left the job last year over her dissatisfaction with the change. “It was just chaotic.”
The attorney, who worked in the office for six years, asked that her name be withheld at the request of her current employer. She said in the wake of the change, an unseasoned attorney agreed to drop charges in a child rape case after a sexual assault examination came back “normal” and the man’s defense attorney said the child’s hymen was intact.
“Any experienced SVU prosecutor will tell you that a broken hymen is a myth and is 100% never a reason to dismiss a rape of a child case,” the former prosecutor said.
Another deputy county attorney spotted that agreement and rescinded it before charges were formally dropped, she said.
Leavitt, who took office last year and recently announced his candidacy against fellow Republican Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes for that state office, said he expected resistance as he tries to bring about reforms to a system set in its ways.
According to his critics, “the premise is that these are complex and complicated cases that require specialization,” he said. “That’s just a farce. It’s just not accurate. Proving a case is a fact-specific operation.”
Leavitt said some attorneys who left their special victims jobs years ago remain in counseling due to trauma from the troubling cases. The new shift will help prevent burnout by distributing the cases among more attorneys who can be trained by the experienced special victims prosecutors, he said.
“The notion that I somehow care less for victims because I’m getting rid of the special victims unit is just absolutely backward,” Leavitt said. He contends cases shuffled from one attorney to the next are an issue that predates his tenure.
When in place, the division took attention away from prosecuting other crimes “because we’ve become so specialized that we get tunnel vision and don’t necessarily focus on all the crimes,” he said.
Leavitt said fair treatment of survivors remains a priority of his, and his attorneys will be graded in new evaluations over how well they inform and help victims.
The sheriff said the change isn’t affecting how his deputies and victim advocates do their work.
“It’s not that they’re bad people and bad attorneys, that’s not the message I want to go out. It’s just that we’re losing that level of experience, and that directly relates to the level of service that that victim is getting,” Smith said.
Separately, a plan of Leavitt’s to offer fewer plea deals and take more cases to trial also causes Smith concern, because he said victims sometimes would rather reach a faster resolution instead of participating in a trial that can take much longer to play out.
Probe into attorneys attending a Jazz game
Earlier this year, the three prosecutors who accepted Utah Jazz tickets resigned amid a human resources investigation and an outside probe into the outing with defense attorney Dennis Pawelek.
The prosecutors — Chase Hansen, Craig Johnson, and Pona Sitake — told the Deseret News that Pawelek is a longtime friend and there was no wrongdoing. They emphasized the human resources review turned over no evidence of any bribe and said each had long been considering a departure from the office.
Leavitt said such favors by nature engender bias in a system where plea deals are common, meaning “facts become less important and relationships become more important.”
He views the conduct as criminal and passed it on to the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office for an outside review that remains pending.
“I am completely unconcerned that there was no quid pro quo,” Leavitt said. “I would have fired them, which I would suggest is why they resigned, because it kept the report from being in a personnel file.”
A redacted copy of the investigation from January says Hansen told Leavitt he had repaid the money, “even though he hadn’t. Hansen said that he subsequently attempted to pay the money back,” the report continues, but an attorney he retained told him it would “look worse if he did.”
Johnson, a deputy county attorney in the office for 12 years and one of eight in the special victims unit, said he and Pawelek, the defense attorney, are neighbors of nearly a decade who coached T-ball together and had family barbecues.
“Suggesting that we ever compromised cases together that short-changed the pursuit of justice could not be further from the truth,” Johnson said in a written statement.
Johnson, now working as a criminal defense attorney, said the dismantling of the office’s special victims unit “set the office back 30 years in antiquated philosophy and was not consistent with evidence-based practices in other jurisdictions of Utah and across the country.”
When in the hands of untrained prosecutors, the cases can be compromised, Johnson said, because the attorneys don’t understand the nuances of complicated laws or how to question child victims.
Johnson said he resigned in part over of his frustration over the dissolution of the special victims unit. He also felt his job was in jeopardy after he refused to tell Leavitt which police officers had expressed concerns about the new direction of the office.
Hansen and Sitake said they believe Leavitt had his own public profile in mind when handling the matter.
Hansen, now a prosecutor in Weber County, said he had also been contemplating leaving the office and believed he got caught in the conflict between Leavitt and Johnson.
The human resources report found the tickets were part of a pattern of improper gifts from Pawelek and the generosity could be seen as an attempt to create favorable relationships to help his cases — a finding Pawelek rejected.
He said he secures good outcomes for his clients because he’s a skilled negotiator with a creative legal mind, not because of his friendships. At the same time, he said, the court process works better when those representing each side have a good relationship.
“They’re friends of mine that I’ve had for many years. And us going to a game, a sporting event, was just among friends. It wasn’t about work. We didn’t talk about cases,” Pawelek said. “I could’ve been the one that bought the dinner and someone else had the tickets.”
“No one asks for payment,” he said. “Your friends are going to pick up the concessions snacks, or dinner, pay for parking or whatever, it’s alway just the way it works with buddies.”