SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4 News) – Four women who have been fighting to have their sexual assault cases heard in court may find out in as soon as a month whether the Utah Attorney General’s Office will choose to move forward and prosecute their alleged perpetrators.
One of those women, Crystal Madill told ABC4 News last October that she was sexually assaulted while getting a massage in February 2017. She met with the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office multiple times, but ultimately, prosecutors chose not to pursue her case.
“The justice system turning me down was a whole new trauma in itself,” said Madill.
Tabitha Bell, the second of these four women, spoke to media in April when Mayor Jackie Biskupski signed a proclamation declaring Salt Lake City a ‘Start by Believing City.’
“Last year was really hard for me with having the District Attorney tell me that he believed that my rape actually happened. But he did not want to prosecute because my attacker just went too fast to not notice,” said Bell.
Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill told ABC4 News in an interview last October that a declination to prosecute doesn’t necessarily mean that an assault did not occur.
“Over my 23 years as a prosecutor, I can tell you I’ve met with victims where I know that a crime has happened…that they were victimized. But we may not have the sufficiency of the evidence to be able to carry our burden,” said Gill.
During the 2019 legislative session, lawmakers passed House Bill 281 that authorized the Utah Attorney General’s Office to review an investigation and prosecute any first-degree felony that a district or county attorney declines or fails to prosecute.
The four women and their attorney Paul Cassell then petitioned to the Utah Attorney General’s Office to have their case reviewed again.
“This is precedence-setting legislation where now there’s an ability of a crime victim, in a serious case, to get a review of their case. I think that local prosecutors are human and like anyone else, they can make a mistake. We need another review process so that there’s a second pair of eyes on these serious cases,” said Cassell.
He went on to say, “I think each of the four victims have been happy to see that there’s now a process for reviewing these cases and we’re hopeful that that process will get the resources it needs to make sure that it can work effectively.”
Craig Barlow, Criminal Deputy for the Utah Attorney General’s Office said they’ve been investigating since early April and the process has taken longer than expected. So far, dozens of investigators have spent hundreds of hours reviewing the case. They’ve also received four additional petitions for other sexual assault cases to be reviewed.
“The requirement is that we obtain the entire police file to conduct a ‘De Novo,’ which means ‘from the beginning.’ We’re going back to detectives who have had a closed case for 18 months to two years. We’re not only collecting the police reports but anything that was attached like videotape interviews or any forensic information,” said Barlow.
He also said the complexity of the cases have added time spent in the investigation.
“They’re challenging cases to try because very often, they are ‘he said, she said’ cases. Unlike TV shows, we rarely have conclusive, definitive, forensic evidence in the form of DNA or a secondary eyewitness to the crime,” said Barlow. “These all deserve to be reviewed and we are. But I can see why a reasonable prosecutor may have decided to decline a case because they do present some challenges.”
Barlow said the Utah Attorney General’s Office will screen two of the four cases next week with an independent group of senior prosecutors and investigators. Once they receive a recommendation and conduct an assessment, they’ll decide file charges, decline the case, or whether they need more information.
“We are not seeking to blame or criticize any of the police agencies or any of the prosecuting agencies that have already looked at these cases. We believe they conducted thorough investigations and conducted thorough screenings so we’re not in the blame business,” said Barlow.
Depending on how many petitions they receive in the future, the Utah Attorney General’s Office and Cassell may return to Capitol Hill and ask lawmakers for more funding.
“If we continue to see these cases coming in at the rate they have, we have already discussed going back to the legislature and talking about an appropriation that would allow us to actually hire additional staff,” said Barlow.
“The Attorney General’s office is working hard on these cases, but they don’t have the resources they need. Right now, they’re very thinly staffed and they don’t have a full-time attorney to review these cases. So we’re hopeful that the Utah Legislature will provide the necessary funding to make this review process work,” said Cassell.