After a Utah judge ripped prison officials’ handling of medical records in a death penalty case, the Utah Department of Corrections says it is reviewing other cases to ensure it has responded appropriately to court orders.
It was revealed during a court hearing earlier this week that the department had withheld more than 1,600 pages of medical documents in a death penalty case, which, in part, led to prosecutors withdrawing their intent to execute the man — and he was sentenced Wednesday instead to spend the rest of his life in prison.
Sixth District Judge Wallace Lee said he was “beyond angry” with prison officials, and worried that there may be other cases in which the department had not provided all documents in response to a judge’s order.
Calling the department’s actions “sneaky” and “deceitful,” Lee went so far as to say he would write a letter to the governor asking for an investigation of the Department of Corrections.
Prison spokeswoman Maria Peterson said Thursday that the department has started reviewing additional cases to make sure similar requests and court orders have been handled appropriately.
And while a lawyer representing the Corrections told the judge that disciplinary action could possibly be taken against the officials involved, Peterson said Thursday that it was too early to say whether personnel actions would be warranted.
“We’re still reviewing the issue,” she said.
Steven Douglas Crutcher, 36, admitted last year that he killed 62-year-old Roland Cardona-Gueton inside their shared cell at the Gunnison prison in 2013.
Crutcher was weeks away from a trial in which jurors would have decided whether he should be executed for the crime before prosecutors this week announced they would not seek the death penalty.
Crutcher’s medical records from the prison “went to the heart” of his client’s case at trial, defense attorney Edward Brass told the judge Wednesday, saying it was important to know what kind of medical treatment and medications the inmate was receiving around the time of his cellmate’s death.
But, Brass said, Corrections failed to provide all of the documents — even after the judge ordered Crutcher’s “entire file” be turned over last October. Medical doctors at the prison were also difficult to work with, Brass said, adding that one doctor would not even disclose which medical school he went to during an interview with a defense lawyer.
Prison officials said in a statement earlier this week that workers did not intend to deceive the court or intend to withhold records, and that the missing records were due to a “misinterpretation” of the judge’s order.
Peterson said Thursday that the three-member clinical services records staff has been retrained one on one on the protocol for court orders. All new prison employees are given training on open records laws, she said, and a group training is planned for the rest of the correctional records staff.
‘A slow process’
It’s not yet known whether records issues similar to those in Crutcher’s case are happening in elsewhere in the state. But some defense attorneys said that while they haven’t experienced anything similar, it is often difficult to get their clients’ medical records from the Department of Corrections.
Stewart Gollan, executive director of the Utah Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said he has encountered this problem as he has litigated civil rights cases. Despite having a signed release from his client allowing the release of his own medical records, Gollan said he often has to fight in court for a judge’s order authorizing the release.
“It’s not normal,” he said.
At the Salt Lake Legal Defender Association — which provides lawyers to those who can’t afford one in Salt Lake County — Executive Director Richard Mauro said there are often disputes getting records from the prison. Either the department opposes releasing the records, Mauro said, or it takes a long time to hand them over.
“Sometimes it’s a slow process for us to get those records,” he said. “... We tend to have more hearings about the production of Department of Corrections records.”
And while Mauro said he hasn’t heard of any cases of missing records in his office, he anticipates his staff will likely examine their cases in light of Crutcher’s experience.
“I expect,” Mauro said, “people here will take a closer look here into whether or not they’re getting all the records they’re requesting from the Department of Corrections.”