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Prosecuting sex crimes: Utah County attorney touts improvement, but current backlog unclear

Jun 3, 2022, 8:12 PM | Updated: Jun 19, 2022, 10:00 pm

UTAH COUNTY, Utah – David Leavitt’s controversial decision to dismantle the Special Victims Unit in the Utah County Attorney’s Office has become a key issue in his bid for reelection.

He said data released by the office Friday proves his approach has been successful. Jeff Gray, Leavitt’s opponent in this month’s upcoming Republican primary election, disagrees.

“The truth is, we’re doing the job,” Leavitt said. “We’re doing a great job at it.”

Utah County Attorney David Leavitt. (KSL TV)

Under his watch, Leavitt said the office hired a statistical specialist to track certain data points that have not previously been tracked over time. Some of the data released Friday shows an increase in prosecution rates for cases involving sex crime allegations. It also shows a decrease in declination rates.

“These numbers demonstrate better results for victims,” he said.

When Leavitt took office in 2019, he said the Special Victims Unit had a nearly 400 case backlog. He defends his decision to eliminate the specialized team, saying the move has increased efficiency in prosecuting sex crime cases and now almost all of the prosecutors in the office have received SVU training.

What’s unclear is how those changes have impacted the current backlog. Investigators asked for that information last February.  Leavitt said he did not have specifics.

On Friday, that had not changed.

“The actual number of special victims’ cases that may be part of the backlog is something we haven’t drilled down yet specifically,” said Leavitt.

While he could not provide a current number, he claimed the backlog has improved.

“There’s always going to be some backlog, but it’s not significant and it’s not harming victims,” said Leavitt.

Chief Deputy Sandi Johnson later clarified that the 400-case backlog from 2019 has been addressed. As for the current backlog, she said sex crime cases referred to their office through January of this year have been reviewed by an attorney and either filed, declined, or sent back to law enforcement for more information.

Johnson and Leavitt said priority is given to cases in which a suspect is incarcerated.

The KSL Investigators have identified multiple cases involving alleged sexual violence that stalled for months after law enforcement sent them to Leavitt’s office for screening. One case involving a teenage victim took five months to screen, and records show a now pending sexual abuse case against Republican Senate candidate Brandon Beckham stalled for seven months.

‘This has got to change’: In Utah, sexual assaults are poorly tracked and under prosecuted

“We screened that when a victim called and said, ‘What’s the status of this?’” said Leavitt, addressing the delay in filing the case against Beckham. “And our policy is, if the victim calls and inquires, we pull it up, we screen it, we get it done.”

Leavitt says his office is ahead of most when it comes to prioritizing data collection, but they’re not yet tracking how long it takes to screen cases involving alleged sex crimes.

“That’s an absolute concern,” said Gray, who’s hoping to unseat Leavitt. “Those cases need to be screened and decided upon in an expeditious and short time.”

Gray said he’s skeptical of whether Leavitt’s office has properly addressed the current backlog and believes the training Leavitt says most of his prosecutors now have is not sufficient. Gray says prosecuting sex crimes requires years of experience and on-the-job learning.

Jeff Gray. (KSL TV)

“It’s a process that you go through,” he said. “And there’s a reason it’s special.”

Leavitt said the intention behind the release of data on Friday was to let victims know his office has made progress in addressing sex crime cases.

The release comes two days after a bizarre series of news conferences involving Leavitt on Wednesday.

Leavitt publicly called for an investigation into the Utah County Sheriff’s Office, to determine if law enforcement colluded with a rape suspect in Scotland fighting extradition to Utah, or if the sheriff’s recently announced investigation into ritualistic child sexual abuse is a politically motivated attack on Leavitt. During that press conference, Leavitt also publicly discussed a 2012 case that was dismissed, sharing that he and several others are named in a 151-page victim statement alleging the cannibalism and murder of children.

Utah County Attorney calls for outside review of sheriff over ritual child abuse investigation

Leavitt denounced the claims as entirely false and repeatedly called the alleged victim in that case “tragically mentally ill.” Sheriff Mike Smith criticized Leavitt’s characterization.

“These are victims of crime who have mustered the courage to come forward, and this is what we call them is mentally ill?” asked Smith, during his Wednesday press conference.

“I probably should not have referred to (the alleged victim) as ‘tragically mentally ill,’” Leavitt said on Friday. “Does she have huge swaths of facts completely wrong? Absolutely.”

Gray called Leavitt’s comments about the woman’s mental state “unforgivable.”

“These are traumatic, traumatic experiences for these people,” he said. “And we have to take these allegations seriously and follow where the evidence leads. And he’s not doing that.”

If elected, Gray said his first order of business will be to reinstate the special victims unit and return the office to a more traditional way of prosecuting sex crimes.

“That’s critical that we do that,” he said. “We need trained and experienced prosecutors focusing in on those crimes.”

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Prosecuting sex crimes: Utah County attorney touts improvement, but current backlog unclear