Police arrest the bad guys. Lawyers prosecute them.
But that doesn't mean cops agree with prosecutors or prosecutors with cops. In fact, traditionally the two have had a love-hate relationship.But despite campaign promises by now-Salt Lake County Attorney David Yocom to work more closely with officers, the relationship between police in Salt Lake County and prosecutors is becoming more hate than love.
Many law enforcement officers are increasingly disgruntled with Yocom's office, which they say is soft on criminals at the expense of crime victims. Hard-core criminals, including murderers, rapists, drug dealers and robbers, are walking the streets because the county attorney's office refuses to prosecute, they say.
Yocom and county prosecutors say they have good, legal reasons for the refusals. Each case needs independent review by prosecutors - prosecutors who know better than law officers how a case will stand up in court.
But the more than 20 officers interviewed by the Deseret News say some of the cases involve overwhelming evidence of the suspect's guilt.
"The deputy county attorneys are acting as the jury before these cases ever have a chance to go to court," said Intensive Supervision Parole officer Scott Carver. "That's not their role. They have a duty to society to do their best with the case and let a judge or jury decide it."
But, answered Yocom, the legal standards established by the courts are tougher today than ever before. "We've got to have a better case than ever before," he said. "We have to prove `beyond a reasonable doubt,' not `we've got a shot (at proving it).' "
Officers complain that prosecutors require them to have a smoking gun, a taped confession and witnesses before they are willing to take the case to court. And too often, officers say, when criminal charges are filed, they are one or more degrees less than what Utah code allows.
And sometimes the cases are plea bargained even further.
"They just won't take a case that isn't 100 percent guaranteed," said ISP agent Sharon Daurelle. "If there is even the remote chance they might
lose, they won't even touch it."
Officers say the bureaucratic hoops they are required to jump through to get charges filed are ludicrous and serve no legal function. Said Salt Lake Detective Jerry Mendez, "We take a case to them and they say it doesn't meet their standards of winability. But they won't tell us what that standard is."
"If you had your druthers, would you like to go into court and have to work to win or go in and just present it? They would prefer not to work that hard," said another Salt Lake detective.
Officers say the problem is particularly prevalent in homicide cases. Utah law specifically states which elements must be present to charge a first-degree, second-degree or manslaughter cases. But officers say regardless of the evidence in homicide cases, prosecutors are filing cases at least one-degree lower than what the law allows.
State law specifies only one aggravating element need be present to qualify a homicide as a capital homicide. But prosecutors aren't filing capital cases unless there are an overwhelming number of aggravating circumstances and a good chance of a death penalty.
"About the only people who are charged with capital homicide are named Hernandez or Garcia or Martinez or LeRoy Jackson," said one detective, implying the degree of charges are frequently based on racial or socio-economic factors.
Yocom agrees that not a lot of capital homicide cases have been filed, but said it has nothing to do with the county's unwillingness to prosecute the cases. "I would prefer to file a second-degree murder than ask my attorneys to go into court without adequate evidence to prove aggravating circumstances beyond a reasonable doubt," he said. "We can't file something more serious than what we can prove."
But law officers say they can prove it. "It's not that they (the prosecutors) can't prove these cases," said Mendez. "They don't want to. It's easier not to."
Some officers say that Yocom, whose office is at 21st South State, doesn't know what his deputies are doing at their offices downtown. What Yocom says and what his deputies do are far different, the police officials charge.
"Dave Yocom made campaign promises to work with officers, especially when it comes to plea bargains, but that hasn't happened," said a law enforcement officer. "We learn about them after the fact."
In the case of parolees, parole agents say the county attorney's office finds it easier and cheaper to return the suspect to prison on a parole violation than it is to try him on new charges.
Said ISP Supervisor Dick Sullivan, "They say the guy's on parole and going back to prison anyway, and they simply don't want to deal with it. It doesn't matter what kind of evidence we've got, they won't touch it."
"That's not true. They already make up a good share of our cases," Yocom said. Rather than being unwilling to prosecute parolees, Yocom said his deputies are more willing to prosecute "iffy" cases against parolees because they are more dangerous.
"Words are one thing," said Sullivan. "Actions are another. We can show case after case after case where just the opposite is true."
Parole agents say the Board of Pardons, through parole revocations, is doing the job the county attorney's office should be doing. "But the trouble is we can only go after those on parole and hope they still have some time left to serve on their sentences."
Yocom says his deputies are working hard, but says he would like to see his attorneys taking more cases to trial, particularly cases "in the gray area."> "We need to take more chances," he said.> Law officers agree wholeheartedly. There are just too many cases involving hard-core criminals that never make it to trial.
Among the cases:
- Albert Lynn Atkins, a former police officer who confessed to forging checks on his best friend's account, then murdering his friend to cover up the crime. Detectives prepared a capital homicide case, but they left the Salt Lake County attorney's office with a lesser second-degree murder charge.
A plea bargain further resulted in Atkins being sentenced to an even lesser offense of manslaughter, the same 1-to-15 year sentence he would have gotten for forging his friend's checks.
"I feel justice was served," the case prosecutor said.> "There was no justice," answered Mendez.> - Daurelle cites the case of one suspect in 11 Salt Lake-area robberies. Each victim picked him out of a spread of various photos.> However, when it came time to pick him out of a police lineup, the bandit had shaved his mustache and combed his hair differently. "I supervise the guy and I couldn't pick him out, he had changed his appearance so much," said Daurelle.
The victims couldn't pick him out of the lineup either and the county attorney's office refused to file charges, despite the earlier identification of the suspect's photo. When the victims later attended Alvarez's parole revocation hearing, they immediately identified him.
"If the witnesses can't pick him out of a line up, can we be sure they can identify him in court?" Yocom said.
Yocom said investigating officer Harvey Jackson was in full agreement with the refusal to prosecute. "I won't comment on that. No way," responded Jackson to Yocom's comments.
- When parole agents went to check on Tommy Carter, a four-time convicted career criminal, he answered the door holding a large bag of cocaine. He admitted it was cocaine and was charged with felony possession. But when officers went to court for a preliminary hearing, they discovered Carter had already been allowed to plead guilty to a misdemeanor.
"Oh, we forgot to tell you" was the only response from the county attorney's office, said the agents.
- One parolee led police on a high-speed chase through Salt Lake City streets. Speeds were well in excess of 70 mph and the chase ended when the parolee crashed the car into a city traffic sign.
Utah code specifies a chase that results in damage or is in excess of 30 mph over the posted limit is a felony offense. Despite the suspect's felony record, no felony was ever charged. Instead, misdemeanor charges were filed.
"That's really going after the iffy cases," said Sullivan sarcastically.> - Kris Olsen was charged with kidnapping and raping two young boys. He was apprehended and the victims positively identified their assailant. Olsen was charged with three counts of aggravated sexual assault, all first-degree felonies with minimum mandatory sentences of 10 years on each count.
Olsen was allowed to plead guilty to one count of attempted forcible sodomy, a second-degree felony punishable by 1-to-15 years.> "Those kids were great witnesses," said Sullivan. "Why weren't they allowed to testify?" None of the officers involved in the case agreed to the plea bargain.
Deputy County Attorney Tom Vuyk said the case had witness problems. Because the victims had asked Olsen for money and had agreed to some sex acts, their veracity might be in question on the witness stand.
"We didn't want to have to put two young guys on the witness stand if we could help it," said Vuyk. "It was decided the best thing was to plead it and get it over with. They were absolutely not good witnesses."
- In a Salt Lake homicide, one man confessed to the killing and an accomplice corroborated the confession. But prosecutors wouldn't file homicide charges because officers couldn't find a third person involved in the crime, said a Salt Lake City homicide detective.
- One parolee, who was wearing an electronic leg bracelet to monitor his whereabouts, skipped town with the leg bracelet and later threw the $800 device away. Parole agents went to file charges for theft of the monitoring device, but the county attorney's office refused, Sullivan said.
Despite a signed agreement between the Department of Corrections and the inmate, prosecutors told officers it was an administrative problem, not something for the criminal court system.> "The good taxpayers of Utah paid for that leg bracelet, and we get no restitution, no charges and no conviction," said Sullivan. "To the county attorney, it's like it never happened."
And as more and more criminals are set free, the Salt Lake County attorney's office has become the butt of numerous jokes, as well as growing frustration. "Hear no evil, see no evil," said one Salt Lake patrol officer. "You've gotta wonder whose side they're on."