Ex-Utah prosecutor, federal judge accused of sexually abusing witness during white supremacist serial-killer trial won’t get judicial punishment
(Charles Dharapak | Associated Press file photo) This May 1, 2008, file photo shows U.S. District Judge Richard W. Roberts before the start of a ceremony at the federal courthouse in Washington. A Utah woman alleges in a lawsuit filed Wednesday, March 16, 2016, that Roberts, a longtime federal judge, sexually assaulted her when he was a prosecutor and she was a teenage witness in a high-profile case 35 years ago.
Salt Lake City • A former federal judge in Washington, D.C. won’t face judicial discipline over allegations he sexually assaulted a woman when he was a prosecutor in Utah and she was a 16-year-old witness in a white supremacist serial-killer case, according to court documents.
A panel of federal judges found it couldn’t punish Richard W. Roberts because he wasn’t yet a judge when he met the teenage girl during the 1981 Utah trial in the deaths of two black joggers.
Roberts has acknowledged having an intimate relationship with the teen, but says it was consensual and began after the trial. His lawyer Brian Heberlig declined to comment Friday on the decision.
The Utah Attorney General’s Office expressed disappointment about the complaint being dismissed by the U.S. Judicial Conference’s Committee on Judicial Conduct and Disability.
“Would we have liked to see them do more? Yes,” said attorney general spokesman Dan Burton. State prosecutors decided to file the ethics complaint instead of criminal charges, in part because 16 was the legal age of consent at the time.
Congressional oversight committees could still impeach Roberts, Burton said, though he wasn’t immediately aware of any efforts to take up the case.
Roberts announced his retirement as chief judge for the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia in March 2016, the same day the allegations came to light in a lawsuit.
The judicial committee also examined a complaint about the timing of his retirement. The panel confirmed Roberts suffers from a rare condition that caused near-term memory loss and seizures, but said “the timing of Judge Roberts’ disability retirement was accelerated by the anticipated publicity about the Utah complaints.”
The accuser’s attorney, Rocky Anderson, said he believes Roberts should be disbarred, but he is focused on the civil lawsuit filed against the former judge.
The woman, Terry Mitchell, said Roberts, then 27, sexually abused her during the trial of Joseph Paul Franklin, a white supremacist who killed the joggers during a cross-country rampage. The Associated Press does not typically name people who say they were sexually assaulted, but Mitchell has said she wants to make the allegations public to prevent such abuse.
Mitchell was friends with the joggers and testified about the random attack that left her with shrapnel wounds.
Mitchell said she suppressed the memories of the sexual abuse for decades, until Roberts emailed her in 2013 about Franklin’s execution in Missouri.
Roberts’ lawyers have said the sexual encounters were consensual and didn’t affect the outcome of the case. They argue the $25 million lawsuit should be tossed because the claims are too old.
The case will test a new Utah law that lifts the statute of limitations for victims of sex crimes who want to sue their abusers. Lawmakers said they passed the measure to recognize it often takes victims years to come to terms with abuse and report it.