Holly Richardson: Vote no to retain Judge Christine Johnson for a ‘concerning pattern of leniency on abusers’

Correction (Oct. 31 , 5:49 p.m.) » The Oct. 20 commentary by Tribune contributor Holly Richardson, which argued that voters should not retain Utah 4th District Court Judge Christine Johnson in office, contained factual errors:

  • The column stated that Judge Johnson ordered that Porter Dale, who pleaded guilty to a charge of attempted aggravated sexual abuse of a child, “receive outpatient treatment and probation rather than jail time.” Judge Johnson did sentence Dale to one year in jail. 

  • The column stated that Judge Johnson “continues to release Ronald Wolsey into the community on probation.” Judge Johnson put Ronald Wolsey on probation once in 2016.

  • The column stated that Judge Johnson "failed to disclose" that she represented Shawn Michael Leonard 11 years prior to his appearance before her in an unrelated case. That is not required by law or the judicial code of conduct. 

  • The column incorrectly connected Judge Johnson’s sentencing of Shawn Michael Leonard with his subsequent criminal behavior. 

  • The column incorrectly connected Judge Johnson’s sentencing of Jose Baray with behavior he was charged with, but not convicted of.

“Shall (blank) be retained in the office of Judge of the District Court of (blank).”

Every Utah ballot this year asks that question, and for many (most? all?) voters, the answer is “How am I supposed to know?” That’s a good question and one that can be hard to answer.

You can take the approach that some do and vote no on all judges, or the opposite and vote yes on all judges, but the problem with that, of course, is that not all judges were created equal.

Good judges make some bad decisions and bad judges sometimes make good decisions. The question voters need to ask is “What is the pattern of decisions?” and “Should this judge continue on the bench, given that pattern?”

When it comes to Judge Christine Johnson in the Fourth Judicial Court, I believe the answer to the second question is no. Judge Johnson, who has made some good decisions, also has a deeply concerning pattern of leniency on abusers, especially, it seems, when she thinks they are “good guys.”

In 2009, Gary Wade Brown, a former Boy Scout leader, was given a slap on the wrist for multiple accounts of sexual abuse and sexual exploitation of a child, in spite of a statement from his then-wife, Sheri Brown. In the process of divorcing him, Sheri asked the judge to protect her and her children from Gary, who had shown zero interest in changing and no remorse.

“One day, his prison doors will open,” she said, “but his victim’s prison doors may not.”

Nonetheless, Johnson handed down the lightest sentence possible, saying Gary Brown may benefit from treatment as a free man during his 36 months on probation. “I think, in this case, that it is appropriate to consider probation for Mr. Brown,” she said.

In 2010, Shawn Michael Leonard was in a work release program approved by Johnson when he walked away from the work detail and subsequently attacked a woman, raped her and beat her with a rock and block of concrete. Johnson had been Leonard’s attorney in three previous cases, a relationship she failed to disclose.

In 2011, she refused to allow a prosecution witness in an assault case, ruling that the potential witness would be “unduly prejudicial” to the accused. That same year, she handed down a “ridiculously light” sentence to a man who impersonated a police officer, detained an innocent woman, brandished a real-looking gun at her and demanded she disrobe and urinate in front of him. Johnson gave him a 90-day sentence, with credit for 51 days of time served, promoting the Provo Daily Herald to award her a “buffalo chip.”

In 2016, she let 24-year-old Porter Dale, a child sexual predator, receive outpatient treatment and probation rather than jail time, even though there was testimony that the perpetrator had groomed his victim and had led her — a 9-year-old child — to believe she was his girlfriend.

In 2018, Robert Byers Matthews, already a registered sex offender convicted of possessing child pornography, was in her courtroom for exposing himself to people on a hiking trail near Pleasant Grove. He was found guilty of lewdness by a jury in February but was not taken into custody. Instead, Johnson released him back into the community before sentencing, which occurred months later. He is currently on probation, living in the community.

Johnson is also the judge who continues to release Ronald Wolsey into the community on probation. Wolsey’s ex-wife Heather has stacks of police reports and court documents showing a trail of violence in a 20-year marriage, including reports of her being choked, punched and threatened with death. He has also violated protective orders more than 40 times. In spite of that, Ronald Wolsey has served almost no jail time.

“As a victim in Judge Johnson’s courtroom, I felt silenced,” Heather Wolsey said. “I spoke the truth and expressed my well-placed fears to no avail. It’s like she never heard me. The result was always the same — probation, my abuser going free and the cycle of stalking and abuse started all over again.”

Heather Wolsey has started the Families for Judicial Reform PAC, urging voters in the Fourth Judicial District to vote no on retaining Judge Johnson. I will be one of those voting no.

Holly Richardson is not OK with a courtroom where the “losers” continue to be the victims of abusive perpetrators.