PROVO — A connection has been uncovered between a man accused of brutally raping a Utah Valley University student and leaving her for dead and the judge who allowed his work release.

The judge who gave Shawn Leonard the OK for work release instead of sending him to prison had previously been his defense attorney.

There are now questions as to why 4th District Judge Christine Johnson didn't recuse herself from hearing Leonard's current theft case, which in the legal system is seen as a serious conflict of interest.

It has been 11 years now, but court records show that Johnson — who from 1997 to 2003 worked in the Utah County Public Defender's Office — represented Leonard in felony forgery cases in 1999. On May 4 of this year, Johnson, who was appointed to the bench in 2008, sat in judgment of Leonard on a felony theft case.

"I'm not saying there was anything going on with Judge Johnson, but it's a concern where she defended him and now she is his judge," said deputy Utah County attorney Craig Johnson. "So we didn't want that to muddy the waters with his probation violation."

The judge suspended prison time and sentenced Leonard to 280 days in the Utah County Jail, with credit for 85 days already served.

"Adult Probation and Parole had recommended prison; she agreed to allow him probation. That wasn't unique to her," Craig Johnson said. "Judge Laycock also had that happen in (Leonard's) case in her court, but from the public's perception, who we represent in the county attorney's office, we need to make sure everything appears above board."

Leonard then qualified for the Jail Industries program and walked away on June 8. The next day, a 19-year-old woman was brutally raped and suffered horrible injuries to her face and head. Leonard allegedly robbed a woman at knifepoint just hours after the assault.

Leonard now faces charges of attempted aggravated murder, aggravated sexual assault, aggravated kidnapping and aggravated robbery all related to the rape of the UVU student along the Provo River Trail.

"We're looking to get him in prison for life without parole," Craig Johnson said. "We want to make sure there is no possible concern by any perception that anything is going on that is not in the best interest of justice."

That original theft case against Leonard was transferred to a new judge earlier this week in an effort to consolidate all of the cases before one judge.

A spokeswoman for the court issued a statement, which reads in part, "The judge had no recollection of the defendant or the facts of his earlier cases when she sentenced him in May 2010 … so in short, there was no reason for the judge to disqualify herself in this case."

e-mail: spenrod@ksl.com