Why the Utah County Attorney got rid of the special victims unit, despite criticism from police and his own prosecutors

How to prosecute sex crimes has become a central issue in the county attorney race, where Incumbent David Leavitt faces challenger Jeff Gray on the Republican primary ballot.

(The Salt Lake Tribune) David Leavitt, left, and Jeff Gray, candidates for Utah County Attorney.

When David Leavitt took over as Utah County’s top prosecutor more than three years ago, he noticed a part of the Utah County Attorney’s Office that he came to believe was dysfunctional.

It was the special victims unit, a group of five or six attorneys who exclusively handled the county’s sex crimes and domestic violence prosecutions. But Leavitt said the unit wasn’t working: There was a backlog of sexual assault cases, scheduling conflicts and an unbalanced workload for prosecutors.

“The only conclusion to come to is that victims aren’t being served here,” he said in a recent interview.

So he got rid of it.

But Leavitt’s 2020 decision to disband the unit and divide such cases among all office attorneys has been a constant source of criticism from police groups and former county prosecutors.

And now it’s a central issue in the race for who will be the next Utah County Attorney, an election that will be decided in the June 28 primary since there is no Democrat running.

The race took a bizarre turn earlier this week after Leavitt said the county sheriff may have been politically motivated to dredge up decades-old allegations that Leavitt had been involved in a “ritualistic sex ring” — something Utah County Sheriff Mike Smith denies.

But at the heart of this election is the serious and systemic issue of how prosecutors should handle their most sensitive sexual assault and domestic violence cases.

Republican challenger Jeff Gray said that when Leavitt disbanded the special victims unit, it was a signal that sex crimes are not a priority.

“We need prosecutors that are trained and experienced in prosecuting crimes against women and children,” Gray said in a recent interview. “He’s simply, in my view, not taking those cases seriously enough.”

Prosecuting sex crimes

Gray said that if Utah County voters elect him as county attorney, he will bring back the special victims unit.

That would be more in line with what other prosecutor offices do in Utah. Salt Lake, Davis, Weber and Washington counties all have specialized units who handle sex crimes. And smaller Summit County has one attorney dedicated to those cases.

“With child sex crimes, there’s a lot of myths surrounding how victims behave. Same with rape,” Gray said. “And you need prosecutors who understand that and have the experience and training to address those things. Because those myths are going to come up at trial and we need prosecutors that are ready to address those kinds of misconceptions by juries.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah County Attorney candidate Jeff Gray.

Gray has worked as an attorney who handles felony appeals for the Utah Attorney General’s Office for more than two decades. He’s never run for public office before, but the Mapleton man said he felt compelled to after he came to believe many of Leavitt’s reforms have lost focus on victims and community safety.

Leavitt — who has raised more than $100,000 in campaign funds, compared to Gray’s $15,000 — has been unapologetic about his changes. Since taking office in 2019, he has cut down the number of felony cases his office has prosecuted and put in place a pre-filing diversion program where people arrested for minor, non-violent crimes can stay out of the criminal justice system and instead are connected to resources.

He defends his decision to disband the special victims unit and says that nearly all of the 21 trial lawyers in his office have now gone through a week-long sex crimes training program. The less-experienced prosecutors, he said, are paired with more veteran attorneys in the courtroom.

Leavitt said this has made prosecutors more efficient, leading to more special victims cases being prosecuted.

And his office is now filing charges more often in sex assault cases. In 2020, prosecutors filed charges in nearly 70% of cases screened, according to data released by Leavitt’s office on Friday, compared to about 58% in 2018, the year before Leavitt became county attorney and the speciality unit was still operating.

The data also shows that Utah County police are forwarding more sex assault cases for prosecution. In 2018, the Utah County Attorney’s Office received 259 cases compared to 341 in 2021.

This change, Leavitt said, has also lessened his concern about burnout, which he said was happening when some prosecutors were handling only violent sex crime cases day in and day out.

“Unless you have prosecuted a child sex case, you’re not going to understand the depleting effect that has on your soul,” he said.

Leavitt had received similar criticism from another challenger, Adam Pomeroy, who dropped out of the race Thursday — though he and Gray both out-performed Leavitt in April’s GOP convention.

Pomeroy is a Utah County prosecutor who was on the special victims unit when it was disbanded. He says Leavitt told him the unit was being dissolved because some of the prosecutors on the team were resistant to Leavitt’s policy changes.

With the sex crimes and domestic violence cases spread throughout the office, Pomeroy said, there has been a lack of consistency in outcomes. Law enforcement, he added, has also lost the opportunity to easily consult with a cohesive group of attorneys with expertise in sensitive cases.

The prosecutor dropped out of the race on Thursday, saying he did not believe he could come out on top in a three-person primary. He is now endorsing Gray.

“We believe that Mr. Leavitt has so thoroughly damaged the system, he just has to be replaced,” Pomeroy told The Salt Lake Tribune. “No matter who replaces him.”

Death penalty, plea bargains and police

How the county handles sex crimes is not the only issue that Leavitt and Gray disagree on.

Leavitt wants the death penalty abolished, and earlier this year announced he will no longer seek capital punishment while he is county attorney — including a pending case against a man named Jerrod Baum, who was recently convicted of killing a teenage couple and throwing their bodies down a mineshaft.

Leavitt said he’ll continue that promise if re-elected.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) David Leavitt talks about his re-election campaign for Utah County Attorney at his home in Orem, on Wednesday, May 25, 2022.

He said the death penalty is broken, and feels its wrong to spend millions of dollars for an outcome that will be tied up in appeals for decades. The result, he said, is that offenders are more likely to die of natural causes before being executed.

The only person who benefits from the death penalty, he said, is the prosecutor who “gets to look tough on crime.”

“If I had chosen to continue the death penalty in the Jerrod Baum case, no one would have been calling me soft on crime,” he said. “I would have benefited politically. In so doing, I would have obligated millions of dollars in the future for appeal after appeal after appeal for something I know in my heart will never be carried out.”

“To me,” he added, “that just verges on public corruption. Because what is public corruption? It’s the use of public power for a private benefit.”

Gray supports the death penalty, particularly, he said, to deter people who are incarcerated from killing someone behind bars. He also said it can be beneficial as leverage to get someone to plead guilty to a homicide in exchange for dropping the death penalty.

“The people in the state of Utah, they’ve spoken. We have the death penalty,” he said. “I believe that [Leavitt] violates his oath to uphold the law when he says he’ll never pursue the death penalty.”

Gray has the support of both Smith, the Utah County sheriff, and Utah’s Fraternal Order of Police — a group which released a letter of “no confidence” in Leavitt earlier this year.

The challenger said he’ll repair relationships with law enforcement by meeting with police leaders regularly and train law enforcement officers to ensure investigations are being handled properly and convictions stick.

“We’re on the same team. If law enforcement isn’t catching bad guys, we’re not prosecuting crime,” Gray said. “We are on the same team and we have to be on the same page.”

Leavitt said he meets with police chiefs quarterly, and believes the police are pushing back because his office has been sending cases back for more investigation. He also said his office provides training to law enforcement.

He said he sees part of his role as county attorney as a check on police power.

“It’s a choice for the residents of Utah County to decide whether they want checks and balances in their criminal justice system,” Leavitt said, “or whether they want things to continue the way it’s always been. I have every interest in working with the police. I have no interest in working for the police.”

Gray has also criticized Leavitt’s policy decision to reduce the number of plea deals offered. Leavitt said he’s made that effort to put a prosecutors’ power in check — saying government attorneys often over-charge as a way to motivate a defendant to plead guilty. He said he’ll file the charges with the strongest evidence and defendants can either plead to that or go to trial.

“If I win this election, I will flip the switch to reduce the number of plea bargains we give,” Leavitt said, “increase the number of people going to pre-filing diversion and allow us to focus on the most violent crimes.’

Gray said this is essentially plea-bargaining before charges are filed, by deciding to only file a limited number of charges and never charging those more minor crimes that typically would be dismissed in a plea deal.

“We need to hold criminals accountable and charge them based on what the evidence supports,” he said. “That’s what I’ll do.”