Gehrke: There’s no escaping the politics hanging over the allegations that Gill neglected sexual assault cases

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Here's what you should know about the sexual assault scandal plaguing Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill, according to Robert Gehrke.

A political atom bomb — the mother of all hit pieces — got dropped on the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s race this week.

Or, alternatively, a former federal judge and lifelong victims advocate took a major step to seek justice for four sexual assault victims, justice that was denied by that DA’s office.

And depending on how you see the issue and this race in particular it could be either. Or varying degrees of both.

Here are the facts: Former U.S. District Judge Paul Cassell filed a petition this week with the Utah Supreme Court, criticizing the handling of four sexual assault cases brought to District Attorney Sim Gill’s office over the past two years and asking the justices to appoint a special prosecutor to bring the cases to court.

The stories each of the four women tell are graphic and disturbing and in each of the four, Gill and a team of prosecutors from his office declined to file charges.

Then there are these facts: Gill is in a re-election campaign and the DA race is always hard-fought. Cassell’s filing, a week after mail-in ballots landed in voters’ mailboxes, made major headlines.

So how do we reconcile this information?

If you think Gill is a piece of garbage who doesn’t care about sexual assault, congratulations. You can stop reading now. Enjoy the rest of your day. For everyone else, here are a few thoughts about what we’re seeing play out.

1. The women deserve to be heard. Period.

This is the most important consideration. It takes a hell of a lot of courage for a woman to even report an assault — roughly 70 percent are not reported, according to statistics from the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network. And one of the reasons they often are not reported is because the victims feel like they won’t be heard or taken seriously.

That’s where these women found themselves, believing they were doubted and their attackers got off.

For prosecutors, whether to file charges in an assault case has to be the thorniest of challenges. The human desire to help an accuser get justice ends up being balanced against what can be proven in court.

That’s why, in at least three of the cases, several prosecutors reviewed the information and decided they couldn’t win a conviction.

But that shouldn’t be — and isn’t — the end of it. Two women asked the Utah Attorney General’s office to review their cases. In one, the attorney general’s office declined to intervene, the other is awaiting review. Victims can also take their case directly to a grand jury, an admittedly daunting process.

Appointing a special prosecutor is an extraordinary step. But if that’s what they want, Gill should join Cassell in asking the Supreme Court to appoint one. These women — and every victim who comes forward — need to know their cases were taken seriously and every avenue was exhausted.

2. The timing of Cassell’s filing stinks

Politically, there could not have been a more damaging time for Cassell to go to the Supreme Court, dropping this bombshell right as people are filling out their mail-in ballots. The fact that the release was coordinated with news media (including The New York Times) makes it seem intentional.

I hope that’s not the case. These women should not be used as political pawns.

But even if it is not a hit job, the very serious allegations Cassell is raising are going to invariably be tainted by the appearance that they are politically motivated — even if it’s just because the election turns the heat way up on Gill and his office.

Maybe Gill’s office did screw it up. I couldn’t possibly know that and, as I said above, I think that’s a question that deserves to be answered. However, it should be answered outside the context of the political circus that Cassell — intentionally or not — has made it.

3. Mail-in voting has revolutionized the “October surprise”

Setting aside whether Cassell is playing politics, the advent of mail-in voting has changed the dynamic in which the news media handles explosive political stories near an election and the way voters process that information when they decide who they support.

There used to be a hard-and-fast rule that we wouldn’t publish explosive political stories in the days immediately before the election, the thinking being that a candidate who is attacked based on allegations won’t have time to vindicate herself or himself and it could sway an election.

But that was when elections were on one day. How do we handle it when voters are voting for an entire month? We can’t “go dark” on political stories for weeks at a time, nor should we.

I think news outlets, including The Salt Lake Tribune, got the coverage of Cassell’s complaint about right.

Asking for a special prosecutor is an extraordinary step and Cassell raises important issues that warrant attention and discussion, especially in the age of #MeToo and on the heels of the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation.

But it won’t be the last time — probably not even the last time this election — we’ll grapple with the question. And we probably won’t always get the answer right.

Ultimately, part of the responsibility will fall on voters to be smart consumers of news, to think critically and understand the context of these explosive pre-election stories when they are sitting down to fill out their ballots.