Second look at Utah sex assault cases taking more time and money than the state expected

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Annie Mitchell hugs Tabitha Bell after a news conference at the City and County Building on Wednesday, April 3, 2019. Bell is one of four women who have asked the Utah attorney general's office for a review after the Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office declined to file charges against a fellow student who she says sexually assaulted her.

Four Utah women have fought for years to bring the men they say sexually abused them to court.

They’ve been discouraged and frustrated by the process, particularly when local prosecutors declined to file criminal charges. But they didn’t give up.

First, they petitioned the Utah Supreme Court to appoint a special prosecutor to re-examine their cases. Then, the Legislature changed the law in part because of their efforts, creating a new path forward.

Victims of any possible first-degree felony can petition the attorney general’s office to take a second look.

Those state attorneys have been examining the cases of these four women for about six months, and the reviews are still ongoing. The women will likely find out what these state attorneys decide within the next month. They’ll either get the charges they have long sought or will run into another dead end, but they are grateful for this additional investigation.

Other women have since asked for similar reviews, and the process could take much longer for them — unless the Utah Legislature gives more money to hire more investigators.

Officials with the Utah attorney general’s office originally believed it wouldn’t be a heavy lift to look over the case files again and decide whether to bring charges. At that time, they knew of these four cases and anticipated maybe one or two others might come forward. Utah legislators allotted $170,000, enough funding for a part-time prosecutor position and a part-time investigator.

Turns out, there have been more cases than anticipated. And it’s taking a lot more time to gather the information and investigate. Each case is unique, with its own set of facts and obstacles and reasons why a prosecutor initially declined to take it on.

“What we are finding is that just collecting the information, which would seem to be rather straightforward, is taking dozens and dozens of hours,” said Craig Barlow, with the attorney general’s office. “These would not have been declined [by a local prosecutor] if they were slam-dunks. They all are challenging.”

The unexpected volume of cases — Barlow estimates they have about eight or nine total — means the attorney general’s office needs at least one, if not two, full-time prosecutors, he said, and likely two investigators to review cases throughout the state.

Attorneys who represent these women hope the Legislature supports the efforts to get more money.

“They are taking it very seriously,” attorney Bethany Warr said of the attorney general’s office. “They are going back, and they are really digging into it and opening it and reviewing it. It’s awesome. But it’s a bummer — there’s this hope that the case is going to be reviewed, and it’s already backlogged.”

Paul Cassell, a University of Utah law professor who also represents the four women, said it was a “big problem” previously that victims had no place to go if their local prosecutor declined to file charges in their case.

“What we’ve discovered is, it’s a good vehicle for review,” Cassell said of the new process. “But the funding isn’t there to make it work in practice.”

Warr’s and Cassell’s clients have argued that Salt Lake County prosecutors didn’t act on strong evidence supporting the filing of criminal charges. One woman 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 the fourth reported she was assaulted by a massage therapist.

Warr said she also has asked for a review for another woman, who says she was sexually abused by her therapist during a day treatment program for minors.

So far, Barlow said, all of the review requests have come from women who say they were sexually assaulted, including one woman who wanted the office to review possible charges against someone who allegedly violated her when she was a child. The requests have come from Salt Lake, Davis and Utah counties, he said.

Barlow said it’s been a challenge just to get the case files from police, and not all of the local prosecutors’ offices had any real documentation detailing their review or why they declined to file charges.

“We kind of anticipated it,” he said. “But I don’t think we realized how, when you get a lot at the same time, what a demand it puts on resources.”