Judge in hot water over sentence cut
Authorities are investigating whether a controversial Utah judge secretly knocked 10 years off a sex offender's prison sentence.
Third District Judge Leslie Lewis allegedly had an ex parte (one side only) conversation with a defense attorney and subsequently reduced his client's sentence by 10 years without consulting prosecutors.
"We did an investigation regarding allegations of misconduct," Salt Lake County District Attorney David Yocom said Monday. "We have filed a complaint against the judge before the [state Judicial Conduct Commission.]"
The complaint claims Lewis asked the defense attorney not to tell prosecutors about her plan to reduce the sentence. It also accuses Lewis of altering the date of the sentencing change.
If the allegations are ruled valid, the Utah Supreme Court could reprimand Lewis or remove her from office.
Lewis - a 15-year veteran of the bench who faces a retention vote in the general election on Nov. 7 - could not be reached for comment Monday.
JCC investigations and disciplinary actions are generally kept secret unless the high court takes severe action against a judge.
Defense attorney Roger Kraft said it all began with a bad day he had in Lewis' courtroom on Feb. 10. Kraft was before Lewis for the sentencing of his client, 46-year-old James Robert Scott, who had pleaded guilty to three counts of sodomy on a child.
The attorney said he left the courtroom feeling furious over the way Lewis had treated him and his client.
"There's nothing harder than trying to make a sex offender not look so bad in front of Judge Lewis," Kraft told The Salt Lake Tribune. "But every argument I made, she argued with me, she interrupted me."
And when Kraft noted that his client had been molested as a boy, Lewis argued that experience made Scott all the more culpable because he knew how it felt to be abused, Kraft said.
Kraft's experience with Lewis was apparently not an anomaly. In a survey of judges, Lewis scored low on questions about her courtroom demeanor and whether she is free of bias.
Lewis ordered Scott - who had sexually abused a 7-year-old girl - to serve 30 years to life in prison by running three 10-to-life terms consecutively.
Prosecutors had asked for 30 years to life, but a pre-sentence report recommended 15 to life.
Back at his office after the sentencing, Kraft penned a letter to Lewis to vent his frustration. "It is my job to argue BEFORE the court and not WITH the court," Kraft wrote.
A month later, on March 15, Kraft got a phone call from Lewis, who offered an apology.
"She said she went back and watched the video [of the hearing] and said I was 90 percent correct in my letter," Kraft said.
Kraft said his letter did not ask Lewis to reduce Scott's sentence. But during their phone conversation, Kraft said he told the judge, "I'm hoping our [courtroom] banter didn't cost my client an additional five or 10 years."
After Kraft reminded her of the stiff sentence, Lewis said, "If I still have jurisdiction, I'm going to change that," according to Kraft.
Offering to reduce Scott's sentence by 10 years, Lewis promised to send Kraft documentation of the change, he said.
Then Lewis said something that turned Kraft's pleasure to discomfort.
''She said, 'I would appreciate it if you don't discuss this with the prosecutor,' " Kraft recalled. ''She said it at least two, and maybe three, times.''
Kraft said the situation put him in an ethical dilemma.
''I'm bound and sworn to look after the best interests of my client,'' he said. ''I'm feeling elated that she's going to try to reduce the sentence by 10 years. On the other hand, did she just tell me not to talk to the prosecutor?''
Lewis never sent anything about the sentencing change to Kraft, who said he didn't learn Lewis had actually reduced Scott's sentence until July 26, when he got a call from a public defender who wanted to discuss Scott's petition to the Utah Court of Appeals.
''When I became officially aware she had changed [Scott's sentence] I was saying, 'Holy crap! What am I supposed to do?' " Kraft said.
Kraft said he decided to report the matter to prosecutor Patricia Parkinson, who also was unaware of the sentencing change.
The proper way to try to change a sentence is with an appeal or with a motion asking the court to reconsider, Kraft said.
Once a sentence has been handed down, said Yocom, ''there is not a way for the judge to go back and change it'' without notifying the prosecution.
A comparison of court records with the timeline of events raises questions about when Lewis reduced Scott's sentence.
According to Kraft, the change could not have occurred any earlier than March 15, the day she called him. But the court docket shows only one sentencing date - Feb. 10 - and only the revised 20-to-life prison term.
There is, however, this note on that date's docket: ''The court having given additional thought to the sentencing of the defendant, now orders sua sponte [of its own motion] that counts 1 and 2 are to run concurrent to each other and count 3 is consecutive to count 2.''
Yocom said the amended sentence "obviously didn't take place on that date."
The Utah Attorney General's Office plans to file a motion seeking to set aside the amended sentence, Yocom said.
Kraft said he was reluctant to talk about the case "right before the elections" but said he wanted to ensure the facts were correct.
"I don't think it's right what she did," Kraft said, adding he feels sorry for Lewis. "Here's a life's worth of work that looks like it's going down the drain."