The questions are always the same, even when the tragedies are nothing alike.

When Utah criminal justice officials learned a former Utah criminal is accused of brutally raping and killing an Arizona church volunteer in February, they searched his criminal record asking if anything could have changed what happened.Was there anything in his history, criminal or otherwise, that indicated he might commit such a heinous, unprovoked crime?

Should he have been locked up longer?

Did the system let him slip through the cracks? Did it fail to treat him and/or punish him adequately?

Those questions - and more - are asked, even when there are no answers.

The truth is, in this case there is nothing in John Sansing's history in Utah that would have led anyone to believe he was capable of doing what police said he did.

Phoenix police said Sansing and his wife, Kara Kay Sansing, bound, stabbed and beat a woman named Elizabeth Calabrese who was bringing food from a church pantry to the Sansing family. John Sansing is also accused of sexually assaulting Calabrese.

The Sansings had four children who were home at the time of the killing and told police they saw part of what happened to the volunteer, who had two children of her own.

It is a sickening act, no matter where it happened or to whom it happened. But when it has connections, however slight, to Utah, then the questions come.

They are asked of people like Board of Pardons Chairman Mike Sibbett, who's been asked about Sansing, even though Sansing was never sentenced to prison.

Despite a 13-year involvement with Utah's criminal justice system, Sansing was, by all definitions, a petty criminal. At 31, Sansing had four convictions; the most serious was a second-degree felony burglary charge.

The judge, in that case, sent Sansing to prison for a diagnostic evaluation that lasted 45 days. After getting the results, the judge sentenced him to probation, and he served some jail time in Salt Lake County.

Sansing also has a conviction for spouse abuse, class B misdemeanor, aggravated assault, class A misdemeanor and another burglary conviction, which was a third-degree felony.

He was never the responsibility of the Board of Pardons, but Sib-bett deals with cases like his every day. Sibbett and his colleagues on the board look at what brought someone to prison, how he or she acted in the institution and if there are any patterns in the criminal's history, just to name a few.

Is there a foolproof method to determine who's going to commit more crimes after release?

"I wish there were," he said. "It's unfortunate that we have those in society who commit these types of crimes. I guess if we could figure out a way to predict this type of behavior, we'd screen everybody before that first crime was ever committed."

And while board members rely on facts and science when deciding whom to release, when and under what conditions, they also rely on their instincts.

"If (instincts) didn't play into it, then you could make the decisions from a computer," he said. "That's why we have hearings and why we look them in the eye. . . . It's a very heavy task."

Sibbett also sits on Utah's Sentencing Commission, which has tried to create a risk-assessment test for sex offenders since 1996.

"We've been very consistent in saying all along that sex offenders are a whole different breed of criminal," Sibbett said. "We need a separate tool for sex offenders."

The problem is that many sex offenders don't have criminal histories of any kind. Often they were contributing members of a community before they go to prison for a sex crime.

So, judges and the board can't rely on criminal history to help predict future behavior - which is what they do in other cases.

A draft risk-assessment test was circulated in April 1996, and officials hoped to validate it statistically within a few months. That never happened, according to sentencing commission director Ed McConkie, because Utah's sex offenders spend so much time in prison that there wasn't a large enough statistical pool of those who have been released or are nearing release for the test.

Utah's draft is now being looked at by experts around the country in hopes of validating it that way. McConkie said another option to validate the form is to use a pool of California offenders for the test.

It is not a problem unique to Utah, he said.

"Other states are also struggling with this issue (of risk assessment)," McConkie said.

But as Utah officials grapple with how to decide who's fit for freedom, they know that sometimes there is no way of knowing what a person is capable of doing.

That appears to be the case for John Sansing.

"That's an anomalous situation," McConkie said. "He doesn't have the criminal history in his background to predict that.

"When a seemingly normal person does such an egregious act, who can predict that?"