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Utah woman sues prosecutor — now a federal judge — alleging he sexually abused her in 1981

First Published      Last Updated Jul 30 2016 09:07 pm

Suit » State A.G.’s probe substantiates sexual relations between the jurist, now a chief district judge in D.C., and a Salt Lake City murder witness, then 16.

More than 35 years after Terry Elrod Mitchell watched serial killer Joseph Paul Franklin fatally shoot two black Salt Lake City joggers, the Utah woman is suing a former federal prosecutor in the case — now a federal judge — who she says sexually assaulted her during the 1981 trial.

In a federal civil lawsuit filed Wednesday, Mitchell alleges Richard Warren Roberts, then a civil rights attorney for the U.S. Department of Justice, raped her repeatedly while in Utah to aid in Franklin's prosecution.

A monthslong investigation by the Utah attorney general's office and a review by former U.S. District Judge Paul Cassell found that Roberts did have a sexual relationship with Mitchell, who was 16 at the time, during the course of the Franklin trial. But the office, Cassell and a third judge, Raymond Uno, determined that, based on the laws on the books in 1981, the office could charge Roberts only with a class B misdemeanor, punishable by six months in jail.

Under current law, Roberts' conduct, which he admitted to in a phone call Mitchell recorded in 2014, would warrant a felony charge, according to Cassell's 25-page summary of several hundred pages of evidence gathered during the course of the investigation. The report was released by the A.G.'s office Wednesday, subsequent to the filing of the lawsuit.

Spencer Austin, chief criminal deputy to the attorney general, said after receiving the report in August, his office notified the Justice Department, two congressional committees, the office of the courts, the bar association and law enforcement agencies that handled the Franklin case — the Salt Lake County district attorney's office and the U.S. attorney's office.

Roberts is now on the federal bench and the chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

"We have conclusive proof. This isn't just a 'he said, she said,' " Mitchell's attorney, former Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson, said Wednesday, although he declined to share specifics. "It's proof we will offer at trial."

According to The National Law Journal, Roberts filed retirement papers Wednesday.

Court papers say Roberts, then 27, coerced Mitchell's silence by telling the then-16-year-old girl that if the alleged assaults were discovered, a mistrial would be declared and Franklin would go free.

In a statement provided to The Tribune, an attorney for Roberts acknowledged that the judge and Mitchell had sex, but he claims it was consensual.

"Roberts acknowledges that the relationship was indeed a bad lapse in judgment," the statement from Washington, D.C.-based attorney Jason Weinstein said. "However, the relationship did not occur until after the trial and had no bearing on the outcome of that trial."

The statement also claims that Roberts has always held "respect and admiration" for Mitchell and said their contact in the years since the Franklin case had been "warm, caring and friendly, which makes these new, false allegations all the more puzzling and disappointing."

The statement characterizes Roberts, who was appointed to the federal bench by President Bill Clinton in July 1998, as a person of honor and integrity.

"He intends to vigorously challenge these false allegations in court," Weinstein said.

Meanwhile, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said in a statement Wednesday, "Our initial review of the allegations [against Roberts] has caused alarm and distress over their serious nature."

Chaffetz said that the Utah attorney general recently made his committee aware of "credible evidence of misconduct" by the judge.

"We will work with the House and Senate judiciary committees," Chaffetz added, "to determine next best steps to ensure justice is served."

Mitchell, who was injured by shrapnel in the Liberty Park shooting of her friends, was emotionally battered and fragile at the time of the alleged sexual abuse, according to the complaint filed Wednesday in Salt Lake City's U.S. District Court.

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