Editor’s note • This story is part of The Salt Lake Tribune’s voter guide for the 2022 midterm elections. You can find all the stories in both English and Spanish here.
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Both candidates for Salt Lake County district attorney say public safety hangs in the balance this election. But they don’t agree on how.
If Republican nominee Danielle Ahn wins, incumbent Sim Gill said the state’s largest criminal prosecutor’s office will suffer under a district attorney who has never prosecuted a case.
Ahn is campaigning on a platform that promises if Gill, a Democrat, is re-elected for a fourth term, the county will languish with crime as he turns down prosecuting certain criminal cases or offers too many plea deals.
The election pits these two attorneys against each other over the backdrop of a restless Salt Lake Valley, where residents across the political spectrum over the last few years have criticized Gill and called for his resignation, and where the Salt Lake City mayor and police department have been fighting to quell crime and homelessness amid the pandemic.
Gill, 61, has support from local labor unions, the boost of name recognition and significantly more cash raised compared to Ahn. Yet his 32-year-old challenger has something Gill hasn’t had in years — the support of local law enforcement agencies.
The Utah’s Fraternal Order of Police came out in favor of Ahn, who has promised to mend relationships with law enforcement. Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes also endorsed her, saying in a statement that he was impressed by her passion for victims, support for police and interest in increasing public safety.
But the proposition of Ahn taking office does not come without pushback. The Salt Lake County Democratic Party has described her and two others running for office as “MAGA Republican extremists.” The party cited the candidates’ rhetoric and ties to right-wing groups.
Gill, who was a city prosecutor when was first elected in 2010, also discounted Ahn’s legal experience. He said her platforms — including promising no plea deals for violent offenders — prove she isn’t prepared for the job. He has classmates of Ahn’s working in his office now, he said, doing the groundwork in municipal court to perhaps someday run an office like his.
“This is an important office with incredible issues at stake, with real harm, real hurt. [It’s] not academic exercises, not political slogans. This is where the work gets done,” Gill said. “And when on Day One, she will be the least experienced person in this office, that’s a risk to public safety.”
Ahn said she is ready for the job. She sees the role as administrative and planned to reorganize the office to achieve her goals. She called the claims that she was an extremist lies.
“People think that you have to have a certain experience as a prosecutor to be a good D.A. That’s not true,” she said. “What you’re looking for with the D.A., is you’re looking for someone who has vision and who has the capacity to carry out that vision.”
What would four more years of Gill look like?
For the past 12 years, Gill has seen himself as a pragmatic reformer.
Under his tenure, the district attorney’s office created pre-file diversion programs to put people in treatment instead of jail, and specialty courts for those with mental health and substance misuse disorders, as well as veterans and those experiencing domestic violence. Before he was the district attorney, he helped create the Salt Lake Area Family Justice Center, a place where sexual and domestic violence victims can come to receive services at a single location.
Two years ago, his office created the Victim Support Services Division, focused on helping victims of trauma. His office also helps send children impacted by the crimes his office prosecutes to Camp Hope to spend time in nature, where they can bond with other youth who can relate to them.
Gill has also helped change laws, including pushing for a hate crime statute in Utah that ups penalties for people who attack others based on their status as a member of a protected class. The previous hate crime statute was so vague, Gill said it was largely impossible to prosecute anyone.
In a recent interview, Gill said that if he is re-elected, he would build on those programs and try to ready the office for the influx of people expected to move to the county in the coming years.
His 12 years on the job have taught him that being district attorney is hard work, he said, requiring skill, commitment and an inherent belief in the goodness of people.
“Fundamentally, what I’ve learned,” Gill said, “is that change is possible, making things better is possible. That we can have criminal justice reform without compromising public safety.”
What is Ahn’s vision?
Ahn believes that public safety was compromised under Gill’s reform efforts.
A campaign video for Ahn begins with her sitting on a set of concrete stairs, beneath a graffitied doorway. Footage of news reports, gunshots and police sirens play as she explains, “This is not New York. This is not San Francisco. This is Salt Lake County.”
“What was once the crossroads of the West,” she says, “has now become an outpost for crime.”
In a podcast episode with leaders of the state’s Fraternal Order of Police, she said she wrote the script for that video — and she believes every word of it.
Ahn said the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office is broken. She pointed to a stack of declination letters she received from Gill’s office through an open records request. They represented domestic violence, theft and other cases from June and July, where the office was asked to enhance offenses to felonies or class A misdemeanors, but declined. She said she would work with law enforcement to build better cases and file more charges.
The Salt Lake County district attorney’s office typically files about 17,000 case a year, amounting to about 70-80% of the cases it receives. It declines a few hundred cases each month. Last year, the office filed 84% of the 16,097 cases it received, according to a spokesperson for the office.
Ahn, whose previous litigation experience was in family law, contract disputes and land-use issues, has also vowed to abstain from giving plea deals to repeat violent offenders and prioritize victims in ways she said Gill does not.
She criticized the county prosecutor’s decision to offer a plea deal in a 2020 case where a 17-year-old fatally shot an 18-year-old. The deal reduced the teen’s charge to second-degree manslaughter; he was sentenced to a year in jail in September. Days later, prosecutors secured a no-contest plea from a 50-year-old in the shooting death of his girlfriend. He’d previously been convicted of hitting and killing his grandmother in California.
The deal meant the man pleaded no contest to manslaughter and that a charge of possessing a weapon would be dropped. Prosecutors said he was drunk in both instances, and the man said didn’t remember either confrontation. A judge sentenced him to four years probation with a suspended sentence of one to 15 years in prison.
Gill said there’s a number of reasons his office would offer a plea deal — perhaps a witness stopped cooperating or other evidence fell through, or it would be more fiscally responsible and quicker not to take a case to trial, he said.
National statistics show that more than 90% of cases end in plea deals, but Ahn said her plan to take more cases to trial wouldn’t overburden prosecutor case loads or the courts system, because she argues she would better organize attorney assignments, increase morale and reduce turnover.
She also argued that sometimes, prosecutors will overcharge a defendant specifically to persuade them to take a more lenient deal. She would rather take the case to trial, she said.
“What ends up happening is [defendants] accept a plea deal because the prosecutors are trained to scare them into a plea deal,” she said, “rather than training the prosecutor to recognize when they have a case and to charge appropriately and to move forward on those charges.”
Fraternal Order of Police president Brent Jex said he likes Ahn because he thinks Gill’s reforms and policies have harmed public safety, and that Ahn has the courage to pursue hard cases. Her lack of county prosecution experience doesn’t worry him, he said.
Jex added that an improved relationship with law enforcement would also help public safety. Gill’s office has charged officers who opened fire in police shootings, or waited to make decisions in such cases for years. Jex argued those charging decisions were politically motivated, hypocritical and decrease officer morale and motivation.
Gill’s office sometimes turns down cases that prosecutors don’t believe would succeed in trial, but has charged officers in police shootings three times. Each of those cases against police officers were dismissed. His office has reviewed more than 100 such cases since he was elected, according to a Salt Lake Tribune database of police shootings.
“If he’d treat violent felons like they were cops, then they’d get charged,” Jex argued. “And he just can’t get away from that fact.”
Ahn also promised she would make charging decisions within 60 days of completing a case’s review, an effort she argues will speed up the prosecution process.
Controversies and disputes
In September, the Salt Lake County Democratic Party warned voters against voting for Ahn, sheriff candidate Nick Roberts and clerk candidate Goud Maragani. The party urged county residents to reject them in November in favor of Democratic “common sense” candidates.
The party took issue with Ahn’s membership in the University of Utah’s Federalist Society, as well as posting “#OKGroomer” in response to a George Takei tweet, in which Takei promised to stay on the website to “lift up reason, science, compassion and the rule of law” in the face of toxicity and fascism.
Ahn said the Federalist Society isn’t a partisan organization, but instead a “benign” constitutional originalist organization. The society bills itself on its website as “a group of conservatives and libertarians interested in the current state of the legal order.”
She added, “I’m not here to defend the Federalist Society. What I’m here to say is that come and look at my views. Come and look at my ideas. And you decide for yourself whether or not you think I’m extreme.”
The now-deleted response to Takei, she said, was not an indicator of how she feels about the LGBTQ community broadly, but an individual criticism. In 2018, a former model accused Takei of groping him during an encounter approximately 40 years ago. Takei has denied the allegations.
“I love my LGBTQAI+ brothers and sisters as much as I love everyone else,” Ahn said, “and I will absolutely carry the law out equally against everyone.”
When asked about Ahn’s criticisms of how Gill’s office uses plea deals — and which cases his office chooses to file — Gill said each case goes through “multiple layers of review” to determine if charges should be filed. He said his office has never declined a case because he didn’t have the staff to pursue it.
Gill said he strives to put violent offenders in jail and has done so with plea bargains. His office prosecuted and brokered the plea agreements for about half of the approximately 40 violent offenders currently serving life without the possibility of parole at the Utah State Prison.
“If somebody is a violent offender, you go after them. You prosecute them as a risk to the community,” Gill said, “but that doesn’t mean that we abdicate our moral and ethical and legal responsibility to create a better system that’s data driven, has good outcomes and saves taxpayers money.”