Judge ‘beyond angry’ after Corrections workers withheld evidence, allowing Utah killer to avoid death penalty

(Courtesy) Steven Douglas Crutcher

Manti • A Utah prisoner — who was weeks away from a trial where jurors would have decided whether he should be executed for killing his cellmate — was instead sentenced Wednesday to spend the rest of his life in prison.

Steven Douglas Crutcher, 36, admitted last May that he killed 62-year-old Roland Cardona-Gueton inside their shared cell at the Gunnison prison in 2013.

A weekslong sentencing hearing was expected to begin April 9 — but prosecutors Wednesday suddenly withdrew their intent to seek the death penalty for Crutcher.

One big factor that led to the decision, according to Sanpete County Attorney Kevin Daniels, was the recent discovery by Crutcher’s defense attorney that the Department of Corrections had withheld nearly 1,600 pages of medical records — even after 6th District Judge Wallace Lee ordered last October that they be turned over.

“I’m about as angry about this as I have been about anything in my career,” the judge told attorneys Wednesday. “I am beyond angry about this. I am angry with the Department of Corrections. This was totally wrong and makes me doubt the credibility of everything I hear about the Department of Corrections.”

Calling the department’s actions “sneaky” and “deceitful,” Lee went so far as saying he would write a letter to the governor asking for an investigation of the Department of Corrections.

“This is totally wrong,” the judge said. “That is something I would expect from Russia or North Korea, not a society like we have under the Constitution. It’s got to stop. I’ve worried that if it’s happened in this case, it’s happening in other cases out there.”

The documents

Defense attorney Edward Brass told the judge Wednesday that the documents “went to the heart” of his client’s defense at trial, and it was important to know what kind of medical treatment and medications Crutcher was receiving around the time of his cellmate’s death.

But, Brass said, the Corrections Department failed to hand over all of the documents that were ordered to be released by the judge, and medical doctors at the prison were difficult to work with. One doctor, he said, would not even disclose which medical school he went to during an interview with a defense lawyer.

“This could have been a disaster,” the defense attorney said. “If it wasn’t for the integrity of the county attorney [who removed the death penalty from consideration], it would have been a disaster.”

Brass emphasized that the state-run Department of Corrections is “a different branch of the same government that is trying to kill Mr. Crutcher.”

It’s unfair, he said, that the state already receives nearly unlimited resources and a team of the best attorneys to assist in its efforts to execute his client. Crutcher, an indigent inmate, receives two attorneys and a limited budget.

Finding out about the missing records, Brass said, was a “fluke.”

“What balances the power of what the government has is the idea that the government will be fair,” he said. “… It wasn’t fair.”

Amanda Montague, an assistant Utah attorney general who represents the department, told the judge Wednesday that it was “sincerely sorry” for what happened. Employees are being retrained on what constitutes a record, she said, and disciplinary action may be taken.

She said medical workers are often nervous about disclosing information for fear of being sued for violating federal health information privacy law. There was also some confusion, she said, on what was a “record” and what was considered “information.”

“This was a failure on our part,” she told the judge.

Rollin Cook, Corrections Department executive director, said in a Wednesday statement issued after the court hearing that his department “immediately took steps” to correct the errors that contributed to the end result of Crutcher’s case. This included clarifying requirements for handling court-ordered medical-records requests and adding additional checks to make sure workers are providing all the necessary documents.

Cook said the department did not try to deceive the court or intend to withhold records. He said that while the department provided a list of medications prescribed to Crutcher, it did not produce a list of all dates and times that Crutcher received the medication. This was due to a “misinterpretation” of the judge’s order.

In the judge's October court filing, he ordered that the department turn over Crutcher's "entire file," including all mental health records. Lee wondered aloud Wednesday how such an order could have been misunderstood.

Beginning immediately, Cook said, additional supervisor reviews will be put in place when a court order requires medical records to be released.

“The Department stands by the integrity of our records processes, which reviews thousands of requests every year,” he said. “We hope that by adding these safeguards to our process, the public and our court system can continue to trust the Department and our ability to provide appropriate, legal access to information concerning the department and the inmates in our custody.”

Withdrawing the death penalty

When Crutcher admitted guilt in a plea deal last year, prosecutors insisted that the death penalty remain on the table. At his trial, the jury would have decided only what Crutcher’s punishment should be, not whether he was guilty.

Daniels said he was planning to take the case to trial as recently as last month. Once Brass told him in mid-February about the prison withholding records, the county attorney said the revelation pushed him to take the death penalty off the table.

“I was irate,” Daniels said after Wednesday’s hearing. “Because I hold myself to the highest ethical standard, and any withholding of information is an affront to justice. The whole concept of justice is that you put all the evidence, all the cards on the table, and if you go where the evidence leads you, it’s a just result.”

Daniels — who has been Sanpete County’s top prosecutor since January after his predecessor was appointed a juvenile court judge — said he also considered that withdrawing the death penalty would save taxpayer dollars and the court’s time.

Also, Crutcher has been responding well to new medication, and Daniels said he believes it is unlikely the inmate will kill behind bars again.

“Personally, I think a life-without-parole sentence is a harsher sentence,” Daniels said. “He’s young, he could potentially be in prison for another 55 years. That’s not that fun.”

The crime

Cardona-Gueton’s death April 20, 2013, was originally investigated as a suicide.

But prosecutors have said in court papers that Crutcher penned a letter to the Sanpete County attorney in July that year, confessing that he strangled his cellmate with a ligature.

Prosecutors wrote in court papers filed last year that Crutcher’s letter contained “racial epithets and white supremacist slang,” and the defendant described himself as a “neo-Nazi skinhead.”

Crutcher also wrote in the letter that he killed his cellmate to get “his bolts,” prosecutors wrote, apparently in reference to tattoos used by white supremacist gang members to identify themselves.

The homicide qualified as a death-penalty-eligible crime because it was committed inside a prison.

At Wednesday’s hearing, Crutcher said little as the judge handed down the life sentence.

Flanked by security guards, Crutcher offered a simple, “Nope,” when asked by the judge if he wanted to speak before his sentencing.

Prosecutors have been unable to contact Cardona-Gueton’s family members, according to Daniels.

Authorities say a bedsheet torn into strips and braided together was used to kill Cardona-Gueton, who had been at the prison since 2011, serving time for theft and drug distribution.

The two inmates had shared a cell for just a few days before the murder.

Crutcher was serving a sentence of up to life in prison for a 2009 aggravated kidnapping conviction, according to court records.

According to The Associated Press, Crutcher attempted to escape the Iron County jail in June 2009 by cornering a deputy and threatening to detonate a bomb if he wasn’t released. It was later discovered that the “bomb” was fashioned from toilet paper rolls, headphone wires and a pencil eraser.

Crutcher was at the jail at the time on suspicion of stealing a car. He pleaded guilty that year to second-degree felony theft by receiving stolen property in Cedar City and was sentenced to another one to 15 years at the prison.