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Utah judge who presided over mental health court retires

Published August 5, 2013 11:10 am

3rd District Court • Judith Atherton retires after making "real difference" on bench.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

On Judge Judith Atherton's last day in mental health court, the bailiff didn't really need to make the familiar call for all to rise as the judge entered the courtroom.

Dozens of defendants were already on their feet, cheering.

"We'll miss you!" shouted a young woman standing on tip toes to catch a glimpse of the figure in black robes at the front of the room. "Please don't go."

In a courthouse full of tense silence and cautious civility, the raucous cheering last week of the men and women of mental health court was genuine and warm.

It was an unusual reception for an unusual judge, who for nine years has been cheerleader, disciplinarian, confidant and friend to hundreds of mentally ill people in Utah's criminal justice system.

"All rise," the bailiff called into the noise as the standing masses held up cameras and cell phones, trying to capture the judge's last moments on the bench.

Atherton retired Aug. 1 after nearly two decades on the 3rd District Court bench.

One of the longest sitting female judges in the state, Atherton has made her name on high-profile cases and become an expert on justice for the mentally ill. She runs the 3rd District mental health court — the first of its kind in Utah — and is a member of the Judicial Council, the court's policymaking body.

None of this means as much to her as the satisfaction she gets from seeing mental health court graduates transform their lives and stay out of trouble with the law.

"If you get to make a real difference in your career you're very lucky," Atherton said in a recent interview with The Salt Lake Tribune. "It has always been my belief that when you give people a forum to succeed, they will succeed — beyond what your expectations are."

As the roar of applause quieted, a tired looking man with deep wrinkles and dark eyes leaned over to the woman beside him.

"Why are we clapping?" he asked, glancing left and right.

"For the judge," the woman said, nodding at the bench. "It's her last day here. And she's the best judge there is."

Becoming a judge • In her youth, Atherton never dreamt of donning black robes and doling out rulings.

She grew up in a small town near Toledo, Ohio, the daughter of a man who manufactured glass for Ford Motor Company. She graduated high school and went on to college. Hers was the first generation in her family to do so.

After college, she wanted change and adventure. She had never been out west.

Atherton got a job at the University of Utah arts library. She moved to Salt Lake City, planning to stay no more than a year.

"Sometimes," she said, more than 30 years later, "your life develops in spite of what you had in mind."

Atherton went to law school at the U. before taking a staff job at the Legal Aid Society of Utah in the mid-1980s. From there, she was tapped to serve as a court commissioner, then judge.

A woman with a quirky sense of humor and confident sense of right and wrong, Atherton was assigned to handle the criminal calendar, where murderers and rapists and kidnappers and abusers are tried.

Often, judges tire of this work. The day-in, day-out tales of tragedy and loss. The gruesome details of crimes made of the stuff of nightmares.

Sitting in her judge's chambers, Atherton confessed it doesn't bother her anymore.

To believe in humanity, she said, staring into the sun, you must accept the darkness with the light.

Difficult decisions • Atherton's 18-year tenure has not been without controversy.

On December 3, 2004, Elizabeth Smart kidnapper Brian David Mitchell burst into song in Atherton's courtroom. It was not the first time, nor would it be the last.

Throughout his seven-year ordeal in state court Mitchell amused and alarmed court observers by singing songs, ranting and raving and, on occasion, verbally abusing the judge and bailiffs.

"I just wanted to see him every time," Atherton recalled. "So, I gave him five to 10 seconds to see if he could behave, and then we would remove him from the court."

Atherton eventually ruled that Mitchell and his wife and co-defendant, Wanda Eileen Barzee were mentally incompetent to stand trial. She ordered Barzee to start forced treatment to restore her mental capacity in May 2008, but refused to force Mitchell to do the same, because experts estimated the chances of improvement at less than 50 percent.

Although Mitchell was eventually indicted in federal court, Atherton stands by her unpopular decision not to force medication on Mitchell to push the case to trial.

"I think everyone would have liked to see that case go to trial and move quicker than it did," she said. "I made the right decision. I'm confident, even today."

Mitchell wasn't the only memorable case to land in Atherton's courtroom.

Edgar Tiedemann — who shot his houseguests while they slept in the early morning hours of Nov. 2, 1999, killing two and paralyzing a 14-year-old who died 10 years later —was tried and sentenced to prison by Atherton. To this day, she remembers it as one of "the most horrible murders imaginable." She recommended that he never be released.

In 2004, Atherton sentenced ax murderer Leonard Preston Gall to spend an indeterminate term in a mental hospital for killing his mother in 2001. He won't be released until it is determined that he is no longer a danger to himself or others.

Gall, who had a long history of mental health problems and not taking his medications, said he killed his mother to protect her from being kidnapped and tortured by three celebrities — basketball star Michael Jordan, film director Quentin Tarantino and movie star Adam Sandler.

In January, Atherton will come out of retirement to preside over the three-week trial of Esar Met, the Burmese refugee accused of kidnapping and killing a 7-year-old girl in 2008 at the South Salt Lake apartment complex where they both lived.

"I've seen so many terrible things," Atherton said. "But if you do this job you have to make tough choices. You have to be willing to be exposed fully to these things that most people would never want to be exposed to. You have to figure out how to survive, and how this will, ultimately, affect you."

Sometimes, these cases affect her in ways she'd never expect.

Three months ago, Gall, the ax murderer, sent Atherton a card filled with thanks and well wishes.

It was for Mother's Day.

Making a difference • When Atherton began hearing criminal court cases, one thing became abundantly clear: Mentally ill people were being treated with the same disappasion and rigidity as any other defendant.

Their needs weren't being met. Their illnesses weren't being treated.

"It was very frustrating seeing all of these people with clear, diagnosable mental health problems cycling through the jails without getting any help," she said. "I felt like we had to do something."

Nationally, more than double the number of people with mental illnesses who live in state mental hospitals wind up in prisons. When released, they are often not given the resources they need to re-enter society, such as counseling, continuing medical treatment and housing.

Three years after Utah's mental health court was instituted in 2000, Atherton took over the program.

She runs the court like a cross between a troubleshooting session and elementary school graduation — everyone gets applause and praise for little more than showing up. If someone is having problems, Atherton and her team of lawyers, social workers, jail personnel and mental health experts are there to help.

Every defendant is required to show up to mental health court regularly — weekly, biweekly or monthly — to check in with the judge and tell her how they're doing. Anyone who violates the terms of his or her program by committing a crime or turning to drugs can be thrown back in jail.

When a defendant completes their treatment and stays out of trouble for long enough, they can graduate mental health court. They receive a certificate with their name on it, hugs, cheers and congratulations.

On Atherton's last day at the helm of mental health court, one of her former defendants returned to present the judge with her own certificate of completion.

Atherton erupted in a fit of laughter. Her face reddened, tears welled in her eyes.

"Well," she said, "I was wondering if I'd ever graduate from mental health court."

The day was bittersweet for the judge, who has dedicated much of her career to these defendants.

As they lined up to face her for the last time, Atherton asked how each was doing.

"Not so good," said a tall man in a black T-shirt. "You're leaving."

None wanted to say goodbye.

Nathan took a picture of the judge with her certificate. Mark thanked her for helping him get his driver license. Jason drew her a portrait. Bobby, wearing a jail jumpsuit and handcuffs, apologized for being unable to buy her flowers. Matt bought her a present, wrapped in brown paper and pastel ribbons.

"You enjoy yourself," said a woman named Erin. "After all those years putting up with us in mental health court, that's gotta make you go, uh, a little mental yourself."

Atherton smiled, glanced at her certificate of completion, the faces in the courtroom gallery.

Leaning forward in her chair, she shook her head.

"No," the judge said. "That was the best part."

mlang@sltrib.com

Twitter: marissa_jae