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Paul Van Dam: Salt Lake County prosecutor’s overreach doesn’t make sense

(Rick Bowmer | AP file photo) District Attorney Sim Gill inspects the damage to the district attorney's office Friday, July 10, 2020, in Salt Lake City. Protesters decrying the police shooting of Bernardo Palacios-Carbajal painted and marked the district attorney's office Thursday, July 9, 2020, night, after two police officers in Utah were cleared in his death.

I’ve known Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill for many years and have much respect for him based on those years. I’ve had his job and can relate to the obligations and pressure he feels.

There’s a lot going on in Salt Lake City these days and the vandalizing of his office was shocking. All the paint, the paper stuck to the windows, and the graffiti, what a mess! Enough to really anger any law-abiding citizen, much less a law-enforcing one. But was the reaction reasonable? I think not.

I don’t know what the internal office process was that arrived at charging these vandalizers with potential “life-in-prison” felonies. But I do know that the penalty does not fit the crime. So what happened here? What should be done?

First, the mess needs to be cleaned up. Have those who made the mess clean it up. Charge them with appropriate misdemeanors. Fine them. Maybe a few days in jail might be appropriate for those who were or still are unapologetic.

Gill knew when he charged them that no judge would sentence them to life in prison. He knew these cases would be pleaded down to misdemeanors. Still, one wonders what he and his senior staff members were thinking when they chose potentially lifelong felonies as the charge.

Granted this was a time of unusual upheaval in Salt Lake City, and perhaps they did want to put out a strong message to others who may think of doing similar activities in the future, but this went too far.

His choice of retired judge Dane Nolan to handle the matter makes some sense. Dane is a very experienced, level-headed person. He has handled many cases over the years and knows the system well. But the need to refer this matter still makes no sense to me.

This doesn’t have to be a long, drawn-out and expensive matter. Reduce the charges to fit the crime. Have the defendants clean up the mess. Fine them and for those who need it put them in jail for a few days. Then have them do community service for a period of time and hope you don’t see them again because the consequences get tougher for repeat offenders.

Gill could have done all of this internally in his office and saved the county $25,000 he’s going to pay to Nolan for his casework.

I don’t know how this move by Gill plays into his reelection campaign, but it doesn’t seem like a good move to me having been in his same position. I understand how emotional it makes people when their “territory” is attacked but level heads are needed during those times even more than others.

Even with my concerns about the D.A.’s overreach, to the perpetrators I would provide this advice. Learn from this experience and don’t come around again with this type of behavior. You may get off from these serious charges this time, but most judges would not put up with this level of behavior a second time.

Paul Van Dam

Paul Van Dam, Ivins, was Utah attorney general from 1989 to 1993 and Salt Lake County district attorney from 1975 to 1978.