Four women who say the Salt Lake County district attorney’s office mishandled their sexual assault reports have a new avenue to seek the justice they believe they deserve. And they plan to take it.
In light of a new law approved this year, the women will drop their unique request before the Utah Supreme Court in favor of seeking a second review of potential criminal charges by prosecutors with the Utah attorney general’s office.
The announcement came on Utah’s Fourth Annual Start by Believing Day — a day aimed to change the way society responds to sexual assault.
University of Utah law professor Paul Cassell, who filed the original petition on behalf of the four women, and others gathered for a Wednesday news conference, where the Salt Lake City Mayor’s Office presented a proclamation signed by Mayor Jackie Biskupski declaring Utah’s capital a “Start by Believing” city, encouraging people and organizations in the city to provide support to sexual assault survivors.
One of the women pressing her case had been known in court papers simply as Jane Doe 1. She reported she was raped by a classmate but Salt Lake County prosecutors declined to take on her case.
Her name is Tabitha Bell.
She stood Wednesday in front of a roomful of lawmakers, elected officials and reporters and voiced her support for the law change. With her assistance dog, Nox, at her side, Bell said she hopes these changes will make it so no other victim will feel ignored by the justice system in the way that she has.
She said the Salt Lake County prosecutor who looked at her case told her that he believed she was assaulted — but couldn’t take her case to trial.
“I just want to make sure that everybody is believed,” she said, “and gets the justice they deserve.”
Utah lawmakers passed a bill that allows victims of first-degree felonies to petition the attorney general’s office for a review if their local prosecutor declines to move forward. Previously, the attorney general’s office would take a second look only if there was a question of “abuse of discretion" by local prosecutors, which is rare.
This legislation, signed into law by Gov. Gary Herbert, came several months after the four women petitioned the Utah Supreme Court to take an unprecedented step of assigning a new prosecutor to their cases.
Crystal Madill, another woman who petitioned for the review along with Bell, said in a Wednesday statement that she at first was apprehensive about the legislation, saying she questioned the intentions of those involved. But she is excited now that people who say they have been victimized will get another chance for a review by someone trained to handle sexual assault cases.
“I acknowledge that it is uncomfortable to even think about for most of us, but sexual assault is a reality,” she said. “It is time for us to stand up and sit outside our comfort zones with survivors and give them a chance to exercise their right to get justice.”
Madill had reported to police that a massage therapist repeatedly touched her genitals and pressed his genitals against her arm during an appointment. Two months after her initial report, she said, prosecutors concluded there was “insufficient evidence” to move forward.
Salt Lake County prosecutors questioned why she sought a massage that would be performed while she was nude, and asked her to think about the impact of charges on the man’s future, she said.
The four women argued in the petition that Salt Lake County prosecutors didn’t act on strong evidence supporting the filing of criminal charges. Bell was 17 years old when she says another student sexually assaulted her while they worked on a school project. Another woman says she was abused by a former co-worker. A third says the former Provo police chief raped her. And Madill reported she was assaulted by a massage therapist.
The Salt Lake Tribune generally does not identify alleged victims of sexual assault, but Bell and Madill agreed to be named.
When the petition was filed in October, Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim 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. He said recently that he was not opposed to the new legislation, saying that he did not mind a second review if the case has been closed by his office and they have decided not to file charges.
Cassell said the women’s cases highlight a troubling gap in the criminal justice system: Alleged victims have limited ways to challenge decisions by prosecutors.
The new legislation, he said, is an important step forward.
“Utah’s new review procedure sets an important precedent for how victims can obtain a chance to have these nonprosecution decisions reviewed,” he said in a statement. “We should not allow critical decisions about whether a case is to be prosecuted to the entirely unreviewable discretion of a local prosecutor.”
The women’s cases will now move to the attorney general’s office, where a prosecutor there will look at their cases again and decide if criminal charges are warranted.
Reed Richards, with the Statewide Association of Prosecutors, said the new process will allow the attorney general’s office prosecutor to look at the case as if it were the first time it was being presented for possible charges.
He called it "a wonderful step forward in the Utah legal system.”