A former Mormon bishop’s arguments that his previous attorneys were ineffectual and hurt his case didn’t convince the Utah Supreme Court to throw out convictions for sexually abusing two women.
The decision will likely keep Keith Robert Vallejo, 45, in prison until at least 2022. Vallejo was sentenced to one-to-15 years and five-years-to-life in 2017 after being convicted of 10 counts of second-degree felony forcible sexual abuse and one count of object rape, a first-degree felony.
The two women accused Vallejo, then a bishop at his Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints ward, of touching them inappropriately when they spent the night at Vallejo’s Provo home in 2013 and 2014.
The case made headlines when 4th District Judge Thomas Low allowed Vallejo to remain free on bail after he was convicted, saying that because Vallejo was not a risk because of his large family and community works. That same judge became emotional during the sentencing.
“The court has no doubt that Mr. Vallejo is an extraordinary, good man. But great men sometimes do bad things,” he said.
Vallejo, through his attorney, declined to comment on the state Supreme Court decision.
He appealed the conviction with five arguments:
• His attorney should have tried to sever the case into two, one for each victim, for the chance at less prison time.
• His attorney should have objected to testimony — which Vallejo considered hearsay — from one of the woman’s friends.
• His attorney should have objected to religious testimony from one of the victims’ mothers, which he argues could have swayed “Utah County” jurors into believing the allegations against him were true.
• Testimony from a friend about Vallejo’s statements about inappropriate sexual conduct with one of the women was protected by attorney-client privilege and therefore inadmissible.
• In-court references to the two women as “victims” — including once from the judge — before he’d been convicted were improper and prejudiced the jury.
Justice John Pearce wrote the opinion, saying Vallejo must prove that his attorneys’ performance fell below an objectively reasonable standard to prove counsel was ineffective.
Pearce said Vallejo failed to do that.
In response to Vallejo’s first argument that his attorney should have tried to sever the cases, Pearce wrote, “In many cases, Vallejo might be right. There very well may be circumstances in which there is no reasonable basis for trying two cases together that could be tried separately. But this is not such a case.”
A reasonable attorney could choose a “strategy that seeks to minimize prison time” by trying two cases — one of which had more perceived advantages for the accused than the other — separately.
Or, Pearce wrote, the attorney could reasonably try the “all-eggs-in-one-basket” approach and play the weaknesses of one victim’s case against the strengths in another, hoping the jury would acquit on all charges.
“And it is logical to conclude that an attorney charged with representing a man in his forties, with no criminal history, and a position of relative esteem in his ecclesiastical community, might prefer a strategy that is designed to avoid any conviction and prison time,” Pearce wrote.
Vallejo’s attorney used spirituality as part of the defense’s argument. Pearce wrote that a reasonable attorney could not be expected to object to similar religious testimony on the other side because doing so could make their own case more difficult.
The court also was not swayed that every juror, by virtue of being from Utah County, would “draw the conclusion Vallejo fears” from the mother’s testimony.
Additionally, the court decided that the conversations Vallejo had about the case with a friend with a law degree — but without a license to practice law — weren’t subject to attorney-client privilege, because Vallejo himself had conceded under cross examination that he wasn’t going to retain the man as an attorney. Thus, the court ruled, the friend’s testimony was admissible.
The court also found that Vallejo “didn’t suffer prejudice” from references to the women as “victims." Pearce wrote that while the judge’s use of “victim” on one occasion was “ill-advised and unfortunate,” the judge also tried to correct the error.
It wasn’t likely the trial’s outcome would have changed if the term weren’t used, Pearce wrote, since the jury had heard “extensive and detailed” testimony about the abuse from the women, as well as the testimony of the friend who said Vallejo had told him about one instance of abuse.
According to court records, a family member of the victims reported the sexual abuse to police in January 2015. A lawyer with the firm that represents The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints also reported the allegations to police during that time.
Vallejo was released from his bishop duties as soon as local leaders learned of the allegations in 2015.
Editor’s note: Utah Supreme Court Justice John Pearce is the husband of Salt Lake Tribune Editor Jennifer Napier-Pearce.