Utah prison officials say they have fixed a records issue that led to a plea deal in a death penalty case and infuriated a judge, but defense attorneys for another inmate facing execution say they are still struggling to get information they deem vital.
Both cases involve a death inside Utah prison walls — one at the Gunnison facility and the other at the Department of Corrections’ main prison in Draper. Both defendants faced the death penalty.
But Steven Crutcher, who strangled his cellmate in 2013 in Gunnison, avoided execution earlier this year after his defense attorney discovered that the prison had withheld nearly 1,600 pages of medical records. Just weeks before trial, the Sanpete County attorney stopped seeking the death penalty, and Crutcher was sentenced to life in prison instead.
The unexpected resolution brought an angry rebuke from the judge, who said, “This was totally wrong and makes me doubt the credibility of everything I hear about the Department of Corrections.” And the episode triggered an internal review of how the Department of Corrections handles records requests in criminal cases.
Now, attorneys for inmate Ramon Rivera — who is accused of beating and stabbing to death a rival gang member in Draper in 2016 — say they are currently having similar issues. But Salt Lake County prosecutors so far aren’t budging on their intent to seek Rivera’s death.
‘One of us is going to die’
Jeffrey Vigil had been in the Oquirrh 1, Section 2 housing unit of the Draper prison for just hours before the fight broke out. Vigil was with Ogden Trece. Rivera, a member of the Titanic Crip Society.
Surveillance footage from that March 14, 2016, day shows an inmate, who authorities say is Rivera, repeatedly stabbing 24-year-old Vigil by a flight of stairs. The two then move to the middle of the common area, where the fight resumes with Rivera kicking and stomping Vigil more than 70 times.
The fight lasts eight minutes before it ends with the two men sprawled on the floor, each lying motionless. They would lie there for 20 more minutes — one awaiting medical attention, one awaiting arrest — before prison guards arrived.
Vigil died at a hospital the following day.
Rivera later told detectives he had confronted Vigil before the fight, saying he needed to get himself relocated or he would die.
“Either that or he’s going to kill me,” Rivera told a detective. “One of us is going to die.”
Vigil’s widow sued prison officials after her husband’s death, alleging they knew it would be dangerous to move her husband into Rivera’s unit. State officials settled the lawsuit several months ago by paying the woman nearly half a million dollars — though they did not admit fault or liability when settling the case.
Jason Poppleton, one of Rivera’s public defenders, said his client will assert some form of a self-defense claim at his trial set to start in 2020. He’ll argue that the prison created a situation in which a violent outcome was almost guaranteed.
But to help Rivera’s case, it’s critical that his defense team receive certain records from the prison — records the lawyers have battled to get from the Department of Corrections for more than a year. Among the questions they want answered is what policies are used when making housing assignments, what are the duties of prison officers and how are injured inmates supposed to be treated, according to court records.
Dozens of records addressing these issues and others still haven’t been provided, despite an order from the judge issued a year ago that the prison hand them over.
“It really goes to the heart of whether or not our client was forced or otherwise placed in a position where he felt like he had to defend himself,” Poppleton said.
Attorneys for the prison, such as Jerrold Jensen, have argued over the past year that certain records should not be released because they worry about safety protocols being made public. Specifically, the concern is that inmates might learn where weapons are or how guards are trained to respond.
“The Department of Corrections is trying to run a prison, with inmates who are not friendly captives,” Jensen said. “They like to do what they can to cause trouble, escape, raise havoc and any number of things. The Department of Corrections is concerned about their safety and security procedures that they have in place for dealing with violent acts such as this one.”
Prison officials said this week that they could not comment further on the case and expect the issue to be resolved in court.
There have also been reports, like one detailing a prison investigation after Vigil’s death, that have been difficult for the defense to get. Poppleton argued in court several months ago that the defense was at first told such a report didn’t exist. Then they were told it wasn’t yet completed. They finally got it after an attorney for the prison “found it on the copy machine.”
“One of two things are going on here,” Poppleton told The Salt Lake Tribune. “Either the prison, for whatever reason, has made a conscious choice to make it extremely difficult for us to get records. The other possibility is they are just not a competent organization to facilitate these sorts of records requests. If that’s the case, it’s a major, major problem.”
‘This could have been a disaster’
In Crutcher’s case, where prosecutors abandoned the death penalty after learning that the defense team didn’t get records it should have, the Department of Corrections handed over a list of medications prescribed to the inmate, but no information about the dates and times he received these medications. Prison officials said the error was due to a “misinterpretation” of 6th District Judge Wallace Lee’s order.
Lee had ordered Crutcher’s “entire file” to be released to defense counsel.
Crutcher’s attorney, Edward Brass, said in court that the missing documents “went to the heart” of his client’s defense. It was important to know what kind of medications Crutcher was receiving around the time he laced together a bed sheet ligature and strangled his cellmate, Roland Cardona-Gueton, in their shared room.
Brass also noted during a March hearing that doctors at the prison were difficult to work with — one would not even disclose which medical school he went to during an interview with a defense lawyer.
“This could have been a disaster,” Brass 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.”
After Crutcher’s case resolved in a life-without-parole sentence, the Corrections Department re-evaluated its records practices, reviewing almost 3,000 cases, according to prison officials. Officials found 74 active cases that needed a closer look to ensure they were handled appropriately.
Steve Gehrke, director of administrative services, said recently that their efforts included reaching out to defense attorneys and talking to them about what records prison officials have. A checklist of what medical records exist is also now given to legal counsel so it is easier for attorneys to seek those records.
“We’re doing everything we can to try to make things as easy as possible,” he said. “We’re trying to make lemonade out of lemons, and turn this into a positive.”
Gehrke said that in their records review after Crutcher’s case, prison officials ended up providing more records in a “handful” of cases.
While the defense attorneys in Rivera’s case aren’t seeking specifically medical records, they say they’ve experienced similar difficulties in getting basic information.
His attorneys believe the records sought will support that Rivera and Vigil should never have been in the same prison unit — and that Vigil may not have died if he had received medical care sooner. And when faced with this information, Poppleton would like to see Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill and his prosecutors reconsider their aggressive prosecution of the case.
“We would hope, for any reason, that Sim would consider taking death off the table,” he said.
But Gill said they’ll move forward with seeking Rivera’s execution.
“Right now," he said, “I don’t see any issues that have been presented to me that give me pause at this point.”
When asked why prosecutors wanted to seek death for Rivera — especially when other inmates like Crutcher have resolved similar cases with guilty pleas and life-without-parole sentences — Gill declined to address Rivera’s case specifically.
“I take these issues very, very seriously,” he said. “Just because the death penalty is available doesn’t mean it’s something you invoke lightly.”
This is the only pending case in which Gill’s office has filed its intent to seek an execution.