San Juan County’s felony prosecution of a wilderness advocate is coming to an end without a trial or conviction after state lawyers filed papers announcing they will not oppose the Utah Court of Appeals' motion to dismiss the case.
During a hearing last week, a three-judge panel voiced strong doubts that available evidence warranted charging Rose Chilcoat with attempting to kill livestock and other crimes when her husband, Mark Franklin, closed a corral gate on state trust land west of Bluff last year. The court instructed the Utah attorney general’s office to brief it on why it should not summarily dismiss the case against Chilcoat.
Instead, Assistant Solicitor General John Nielsen filed papers late Monday saying the state would not oppose the court’s motion. That effectively means that all charges against her will be dropped, according to the couple’s appellate lawyer, Paul Cassell, a former federal prosecutor and judge.
In earlier court documents, Nielsen vigorously argued that a jury should hear the case against Chilcoat and her husband.
“If the evidence is as weak as the defendants claim, then they will likely be acquitted and the case will be over," he wrote. "If they are convicted, then this court will have a more complete record to review.”
Related charges against Franklin will move forward to trial, but in Carbon County, where few people know about Chilcoat’s organization, Great Old Broads for Wilderness, and her activism, which has earned the enmity of San Juan’s political leaders.
“I am very encouraged by the path the Utah Court of Appeal is taking," said Chilcoat, the retired associate director for Great Old Broads for Wilderness. "I look forward to putting these criminal charges behind me and focusing on my husband Mark’s trial and acquittal.”
The appellate court’s involvement came with Chilcoat and Franklin’s petition to hear an “interlocutory” appeal of 7th District Judge Lyle Anderson’s order that they face trial based on evidence presented at a hearing last November. Anderson had further refused to reconsider his decision, known as a “bindover,” and intended to hear the couple’s case last month.
According to retired Court of Appeals Judge Fred Voros, the higher court’s move to dismiss the Chilcoat case before trial is not unheard of, but it is “virtually unprecedented," because bindover rulings traditionally are hard to overturn.
And the attorney general’s decision not to challenge the court signals a lack of confidence in the state’s case against her.
“They recognized, after oral arguments, that they could not defend this bindover,” Voros said.
The move to abandon the Chilcoat case could exacerbate the attorney general’s testy relationshsip with San Juan County, further strained by state lawyers' recent prosecution of Sheriff Rick Eldredge and two top deputies over a shooting-range incident. That case, which was dismissed around the same time Chilcoat was ordered to face trial, drew a harsh rebuke from county leaders who complained the attorney general was doing the handiwork for those with a political grudge against the sheriff.
San Juan County Attorney Kendall Laws did not respond to an email seeking comment. But according to Thomas Brunker, the attorney general’s criminal appeals director, the decision to let Chilcoat walk was made in consultation with the county attorney.
The county cannot now try to contest the court’s motion to dismiss the Chilcoat charges, which the appellate judges are expected to dismiss soon, Brunker said. The county could file new charges that better fit the available evidence against Chilcoat or refile the same ones if more reliable evidence of her culpability surfaces.