Commentary: Characterization of judge’s ‘mistakes’ was biased and inaccurate

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Judge Christine S. Johnson, listens to proceedings as Jerrod Baum appears for a hearing in front of in the 4th District Court, in Provo, Thursday, April 26, 2018. Baum is accused of killing 18-year-old Riley Powell and 17-year-old Brelynne “Breezy” Otteson in December and dumping their bodies into an abandoned mine shaft.

Last week, a commentary by Holly Richardson was published purporting to give voters information to help them decide whether to retain Judge Christine Johnson in the Fourth Judicial District Court. What followed was a biased hit-piece riddled with legal and factual inaccuracies.

Less than a week later, in response to criticism from the Utah State Bar and suggestions that voters refer to Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission reports, Richardson doubled down, intimating that media accounts are as valuable, if not more valuable, than JPEC reports. The irony of her position is, quite frankly, amazing. Within less than a week, Richardson both extolled the value of trusting the media and wrote an article that is full of inaccurate, incomplete and misleading information. For readers to evaluate Richardson’s recommendation to trust the media and, therefore, her article about Judge Johnson, perhaps readers would be interested in seeing just a few of the things her article got wrong:

In the case of State v. Porter Dale, the commentary stated that Dale received “treatment and probation rather than jail time.” False. The court order and jail records confirm he was sentenced by Judge Johnson to 365 days in jail with no good time.

In the case of State v. Ronald Wolsey, the commentary claimed that Ronald Wolsey “has served almost no jail time.” This appears to be an intentional or reckless misrepresentation. Johnson initially ordered six months of jail based on recommendations from both the prosecution and defense. After he violated his subsequent probation, the judge sentenced him to prison on Oct. 26, 2016. The commentary blatantly leaves out the fact that once a judge orders prison, the case is taken out of her hands and the decision to parole him is completely in the hands of the Board of Pardons. A prison sentence is the most severe punishment the judge was legally allowed to impose.

In the case of State v. Gary Wade Brown, the commentary asserts that Brown, “was given a slap on the wrist for multiple accounts of sexual abuse and sexual exploitation of a child.” Richardson omitted fact that the prosecutor, “agreed to not actively seek a prison term,” to avoid having the victim testify, and the fact that the prosecutor believed that the “sentence took into consideration all of the factors that we wanted the judge to consider.” Likewise, Johnson was presented with a psychosexual evaluation that placed Brown “a low to moderate risk for re-offending.” Moreover, Johnson warned Brown that if he violated probation, he would be sent to prison. All of this information was fully detailed in the Daily Herald article linked in the commentary but was surprisingly missing from the article itself.

In the case of State v. Leonard, the commentary tacitly accuses Johnson of having a conflict “which she failed to disclose.” Pursuant to state statute, a judge has a conflict of interest if she presides over the same case she handled as an attorney. Public records show that Johnson, while working as a public defender and representing thousands of cases randomly assigned to her, represented Leonard well over a decade earlier in completely unrelated cases. It is clear Johnson would not have remembered Leonard, but nevertheless, she had no reason to disclose the representation. Moreover, the suggestion that Johnson’s decision to place Leonard on work release for drug and property crimes is what caused Leonard to attack and rape a woman is absurd. While that crime is atrocious, nothing about Johnson’s handling of the Leonard matter shows a causal connection. Leonard was on work release stemming from a sentence in May 2010 for non-violent crimes convictions. The commentary fails to explain what information the judge had that would require a harsher sentence.

No doubt the public should be informed on what our judges do. And no doubt the media plays a crucial role in that. Because of that, we hope that before using the power of the pen to attack individual judges, writers will check their facts more closely. If so, the public will see that judges take criminal sentencings seriously. As with all humans, judges can certainly make mistakes. But the original commentary’s characterization of Johnson’s “mistakes” was biased and inaccurate. Voting to not retain based upon a gross mischaracterization of the judge’s work is incredibly problematic.

This commentary is from the board of directors of the Utah Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, written by Robert B. Cummings and Dallas Young, and supported by attorneys Mary Corporon, Earl Xaiz, Wally Bugden, Tara Isaacson, Cara Tangaro, Scott Williams, Aric Cramer, Ann Marie Taliaferro, Jim Bradshaw, Mark Moffat, Mike Holje, Kyler Ovard, Jessica Peterson, Sam Goble, Logan Bushell, Ian Quiel, Kate Conyers, and Steve Burton.