A crisis exists among prosecutors in Utah, warns Salt Lake County Attorney David Yocom. "We're walking a very, very fine line. We have a disaster."
Criticizing lawmakers for their apathy Wednesday, Yocom predicted a continuation of conflicts of interest and interference of partisanship in the justice system - if the current county attorney system is not changed.Yocom urged members of the Judicial Interim Committee to support legislation that would establish a non-partisan district attorney system. The change would address some of the difficulties that have plagued the Salt Lake County attorney's office in recent years, he said.
The proposed statewide district attorney system would provide experienced prosecutors for all counties in the state. The system would be funded through the state instead of through individual counties.
Many Utah rural areas do not have a full-time prosecutor. Justice suffers when an attorney, barely graduated from law school, works part time as a prosecutor and part time in his own private practice. That is the "disturbing" situation faced by some Utah counties, said Yocom.
Because many rural counties do not have a full-time prosecutor, Yocom receives requests to "rent a prosecutor" to counties in assisting with homicide cases.
"I can't send my crack prosecutors to other counties because they are paid by me through Salt Lake County. I can't just donate their time," he said.
Under a district attorney system, prosecutors could specialize in areas of law, such as child abuse and homicide. Their expertise could be used by prosecutors throughout the state.
For instance, when serial murderer Ted Bundy was facing trial in Aspen, Colo., the inexperienced prosecutor called Denver for assistance. Because Colorado is under a statewide district attorney system, an experienced prosecutor took over the case.
Warren Peterson, the county attorney for Millard County, told lawmakers that he had required the assistance of prosecutors outside his county to assist him with two murder cases. The attorney general's office "loaned" him an attorney to prosecute the murder case of Sharon Sant, whose mutilated body was found near Cove Fort.
Currently, two prosecutors from outside Millard County are assisting in the Gordon Ray Church case. Church's bludgeoned body was found in a desolate area beside I-15 near Kanosh.
Millard County officials support the idea of changing to a statewide district attorney system to handle complex cases, Peterson said, because of the extra expense Millard County has borne.
Because county attorneys are elected on a partisan ticket, it can place them in compromising positions, said Yocom. "A non-partisan district attorney would not have to be beholden to any political system. He wouldn't have to work for a county that may want to penalize him."
Following Yocom's fiery remarks, lawmakers decided to form a task force to seriously evaluate the merits - and potential expense to the state - of the proposed district attorney system.