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Lawsuit Seeks Special Prosecutor To Try Rape Cases Of Four Women

Photo of Paul Cassell.
Julia Ritchey / KUER
Paul Cassell, a University of Utah criminal law professor, filed a lawsuit on behalf of four sexual assault victims who say their cases were mishandled by the Salt Lake County District Attorney.

Four women who say they were sexually assaulted have petitioned the state Supreme Court to appoint a special prosecutor to try their cases.

The four petitioners allege that in each of their cases the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s office declined to file charges.

“Each of these fours cases had been presented to the District Attorney’s office and each of them had clearly been declined,” said Paul Cassell, a University of Utah criminal law professor, who’s representing the women pro bono.

He said the case could set an important precedent for victims who, right now, have no recourse when their cases are declined. In bringing their argument to the Supreme Court, they hope to trigger an obscure provision in the state constitution that allows for a special prosecutor.

“We rely on a provision in the Utah Constitution that appears not to have been used by crime victims in the 120 years of Utah’s history,” he said. “It’s a provision that gives the Utah Supreme Court the power to appoint a prosecutor when a public prosecutor fails or refuses to prosecute.”

The women are not named in the lawsuit. One of the women, who says she was raped while receiving a massage at a spa, shared her story with The Salt Lake Tribune. Another woman, identified as Jane Doe 1, says she was raped by a classmate.

The Tribune also identified the assailant of one of the other women in the lawsuit as former Provo Police Chief John King, who resigned last March following multiple sexual misconduct complaints.

District Attorney Sim Gill said he’s reviewing the full petition but defended his office’s record.

“Of course, I have always supported and advocated for access to and support for victims of crime,” he said.

But he said there are systemic barriers that can make sexual assault prosecutions more difficult.

“There is a function that we have through in our review process where we have to meet certain legal standards and baselines … so we can overcome our reasonable doubt challenges that we would have,” he said.


Gill argued that since he took office in 2010, he has more than quadrupled that rate of sexual assault prosecutions to at least 39 percent, in line with the national average.

“Those numbers really go back and don’t necessarily reflect what the practices right now, so I do take issue with that,” Gill said, disputing a statistic in the petition that cited a 9 percent sexual assault prosecution rate between 2003 and 2011.

Gill, a Democrat, also questioned the motive of the lawsuit, which comes just weeks before he faces re-election against a Republican challenger, Nathan Evershed, who is a Salt Lake County deputy district attorney\.

Cassell denies there’s anything political about the timing of the lawsuit, which he said they’ve been building since August.

The current national dialogue around sexual harassment and assault means courts might finally address some of the barriers that have kept rape victims from getting justice, Cassell said.

“I think the #MeToo movement has really set the stage for courts, for the news media, for society to accept claims of women much more readily than they would 366 days ago,” he said. “In that way, I think, the movement has paved the way for these types of claims to be considered.”



Julia joined KUER in 2016 after a year reporting at the NPR member station in Reno, Nev. During her stint, she covered battleground politics, school overcrowding, and any story that would take her to the crystal blue shores of Lake Tahoe. Her work earned her two regional Edward R. Murrow awards. Originally from the mountains of Western North Carolina, Julia graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill in 2008 with a degree in journalism. She’s worked as both a print and radio reporter in several states and several countries — from the 2008 Beijing Olympics to Dakar, Senegal. Her curiosity about the American West led her to take a spontaneous, one-way road trip to the Great Basin, where she intends to continue preaching the gospel of community journalism, public radio and podcasting. In her spare time, you’ll find her hanging with her beagle Bodhi, taking pictures of her food and watching Patrick Swayze movies.
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