The Department of Corrections has done some smooth talking and quick backtracking this month.
An issue arose last month in Sanpete County when Stephen Douglas Crutcher, who pleded guilty last May to killing a cellmate at the Gunnison prison in 2013, was given a life sentence instead of sitting through a jury trial that was scheduled to determine whether to impose the death penalty or not.
Sanpete County prosecutors withdrew their intent to seek the death penalty after Crutcher’s attorney – not the prosecution, but the defense – uncovered the unfortunate fact that, despite a judge’s order last October to turn over Crutcher’s entire medical file to the defense, the DOC withheld 1,600 pages worth of relevant documents for “privacy concerns.”
Sixth District Judge Wallace Lee was not happy, and even called the department “sneaky” and “deceitful.”
Which is probably why the department felt a need to go back and review other cases it may have also handled improperly. The department reviewed 3,000 record requests and found 74 active cases that it determined the department may have handled improperly and needed a second review.
Pamela Manson for The Tribune reported that, “Officials contacted attorneys in the 74 cases to see if they need additional documents and all but 12 have been resolved.” The department also said that the staff has been retrained to ensure future requests will be handled properly.
The case of Douglas Crutcher was not an unusual case. Other attorneys have also had difficulty obtaining medical records from the DOC, despite having signed releases from their clients. And even those who did get them had to wait an inordinate amount of time.
Prison officials claim the improper reviews were caused by a “misinterpretation” of judges’ orders, but when a judge orders that an entire medical file be turned over to defense counsel there is little room for reasonable misinterpretation. An entire file is an entire file.
The review and additional training for employees is a good start. But the DOC must also address this attitude of impunity with which its employees treat, and mistreat, inmates. Its history reveals a policy, whether implied or stated, of obfuscating on record requests.
There has been no word that any discipline has been imposed on DOC employees, supervisors or the prosecutors who tried this particular case in front of Judge Lee. Because there has been no discipline, there is little deterrence.
Maybe the DOC doesn’t need another reason to ensure record requests will be handled properly. Hopefully we won’t find out.