A Utah lawmaker wants sex assault victims to have an option if a prosecutor won’t try their case

Republican Rep. Karianne Lisonbee of Clearfield, stands for the National Anthem to open the 2018 Utah Legislature Monday, Jan. 22, 2018, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

She went to authorities two years ago and reported that she had been sexually assaulted, but prosecutors declined to file charges, saying there were “evidence problems” with the case.

The woman and her attorney tried again. The result stayed the same: Salt Lake County prosecutors would not file criminal charges against her accused assailant — former Provo Police Chief John King.

Now she’s one of several women asking the Utah Supreme Court to assign a lawyer to prosecute their cases. But a Utah lawmaker wants to give alleged victims like her another avenue to seek justice.

Rep. Karianne Lisonbee, R-Clearfield, is sponsoring a bill that would allow victims of first-degree felonies to petition the attorney general’s office for a review if their local prosecutor declines to move forward.

“This policy, in my opinion, is the best way to create an avenue for our victims to be heard,” she said, “and for eyes to be on a case that could possibly not be being looked at.”

Lisonbee said HB281 was drafted with victims of sexual violence in mind, though the bill says any first-degree felony could be reviewed. The lawmaker said she ran the measure after hearing from women who had been sexually assaulted and felt the justice system did not respond appropriately.

She cited King’s case as an example.

“The perpetrator was the police chief,” she said. “The law enforcement agency chose to protect one of their own instead of a victim. That is tragic. That is a miscarriage of justice.”

Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill said Lisonbee’s bill wouldn’t change much — the attorney general’s office already has the authority to take on cases from other jurisdictions.

Gill said, as long as prosecutors in his office have already closed the case and officially declined to file charges, he’s not opposed to the attorney general’s office getting involved.

“As long as it doesn’t interfere with our investigation or review," he said, “they are welcome to take a look at it if they want.”

It’s the policy of the office of the attorney general that it reviews declined cases only if there is a question of “abuse of discretion,” according to Ric Cantrell, a spokesman. He said the office supports the bill, saying it will give alleged victims a second chance to be heard.

“A second round of scrutiny for crimes like murder, kidnapping and rape will provide an additional set of eyes on the evidence, and perhaps call in more resources,” he said. “The result will be more criminals off the street, backup support for county prosecutors, and a more thorough process for people seeking justice in the worst tragedies of their lives.”

Cantrell said prosecutors in the attorney general’s office have concerns that the new procedure would increase their workload but added that they believe it’s “the right thing to do.”

Lisonbee said her bill could put more “downward pressure” on prosecutors when considering charges in these sorts of cases.

“This is an important conversation that we have for the many victims that are not receiving justice,” she said. “It might not be a solution for every case. Prosecutors are doing their very, very best. But, on the other hand, there is no harm in allowing another jurisdiction to have a new look.”

When Salt Lake County prosecutors look at cases, Gill said, they file charges when they believe they will have a "reasonable likelihood of success at trial.” It’s a decision prosecutors take seriously, Gill said, to make sure resources aren’t be wasted and people aren’t being falsely accused.

“We have ethical standards,” he said. “We have to have a certain threshold of sufficient evidence to file the charges. You just can’t can’t simply make it an automatic filing.”

The Salt Lake Tribune generally does not identify alleged victims of sexual abuse.

Lawyers for four Utah women — including the woman who says King raped her — filed a petition in October with the Utah Supreme Court asking for a special prosecutor for their cases after Gill’s office declined to file charges in each one.

University of Utah law professor Paul Cassell said then that the petition highlights a troubling gap in the criminal justice system: Alleged victims have limited ways to challenge decisions by prosecutors.

“If prosecutors don’t file charges," he said, “victims don’t get rights at all.”

When the petition was filed in October, Gill defended his prosecutors and said there were other options available to survivors — including seeking a review with the attorney general or petitioning for a grand jury.

That petition to the Utah Supreme Court is still pending, and no court dates have been set.