Tribune editorial: Prison owes defendants, and the public, the whole truth

(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) Flock of Canada Geese fly over the fenceline and guard tower of the Utah State Prison Tuesday October 25.

The people who run Utah’s prisons of course do not want any of their inmates leaving the facility without permission. The rule of law and the public’s safety are on the line.

But the same does not apply to much of the information and official policies in the custody of the same prison managers. Those are supposed to be public, free to roam the landscape, so that justice can be done and the people of the state will have the information necessary to judge whether the facilities are being properly operated.

Back in March, a murder suspect in Sanpete County was given a life sentence after the prosecutor, who had been seeking the death penalty, agreed to the lesser sentence. He did that because it turned out that some 1,600 pages of medical records, which were clearly relevant to the case, never found their way into the hands of the defense attorneys who requested them, nor the judge who had commanded that they be produced.

That was the right thing to do.

Now, in a case in Salt Lake County, attorneys for another defendant facing the death penalty are correctly complaining that they cannot properly defend their client unless the Utah Department of Corrections coughs up some official documentation about how inmates are assigned to specific living areas and how violence among inmates is prevented and handled.

Such information is crucial to the case of one Ramon Rivera, accused of murdering a fellow inmate — who was also a member of a rival gang — within the walls of the state prison in Draper. At issue is whether prison officials should have known that they were playing with fire by putting Rivera and Jeffrey Vigil, the inmate who died in the fight, in the same housing unit. And whether they are responsible for what appears, from prison security tapes, to have been a extraordinarily long time between the beginning of the altercation and the time prison guards knew what was happening and appeared on the scene.

It matters to Rivera because a significant part of his defense is that he acted in self-defense, in a situation where it was the prison, not either of those involved in the fight, that created a situation where, in Rivera’s words, "One of us is going to die.” And whether what seems to have been a much-delayed response to the situation might be a factor that led to Vigil’s death.

The corrections department, like some of the county jails in the state, claim a right to keep their rules and standards secret because making them public would be giving too much information to inmates who might then try to manipulate the system or see a chance to file lawsuits. And that could be a legitimate worry.

But what is more important is that the standards and practices used by jails and prisons must be public. If they aren’t, and neither other parts of the criminal justice system nor the public at large has a chance to see if those rules were followed, then the effect is that those facilities have no rules at all.

When judges order the people who run our jails and prisons to bring forth certain information, the interests of justice and of public policy demand that they do so.

While we are thinking about all of this, it should also be obvious that the best way to make all of this a little less contentious would be to just abolish the death penalty in Utah once and for all.