SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A Utah judge who called a convicted rapist a “good man” during sentencing showed bias for the defendant because he was a former Mormon bishop, according to an official complaint filed Thursday by a gay rights group.
Mark Lawrence of Restore our Humanity said the group sent the complaint to the state Judicial Conduct Commission, which can recommend the Utah Supreme Court reprimand or remove Judge Thomas Low.
Low sentenced Keith Robert Vallejo last week to five years to life in prison after a jury found him guilty of 10 counts of forcible sexual abuse and one count of object rape.
“The court has no doubt that Mr. Vallejo is an extraordinarily good man,” Low said at the hearing. “But great men sometimes do bad things.”
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The complaint said Low was swayed by more than 50 character letters written about Vallejo, which were “conceivably submitted by people writing in regards to the defendant’s service as a bishop with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”
The judge’s remarks showed a bias for members of the faith, according to the complaint.
The sexual abuse occurred in Provo, a Mormon stronghold that is home to Brigham Young University. The judge attended the school, where almost all students are Mormon, but it is not clear if he is a church member.
“There are assumptions in there, but I think they’re pretty reasonable assumptions,” Lawrence said.
Low declined to comment through Utah court spokesman Geoff Fattah, who said judges are not supposed to speak about pending cases. Fattah said the court has received complaints about the judge’s comments, but he did not know how many.
Low received a favorable review in 2014, his most recent evaluation, Fattah said.
Julia Kirby, one of Vallejo’s victims, said Thursday that she also plans to file an official complaint with the commission. She said she wants the panel to know that “it was mentally and emotionally damaging to hear the judge say those things.”
She said she was 19 when Vallejo, a relative, groped her multiple times when she stayed at his house while attending BYU in 2013. The Associated Press does not normally identify victims of sexual assault, but Kirby said she wanted her name used.
Another judicial oversight panel received more than 100 comments about the judge following his remarks, but it does not have the same power as the Judicial Conduct Commission.
“I understand that the decision was over two hours long, so taking a little 20-second snippet probably doesn’t tell the whole story,” Gov. Gary Herbert said Thursday during his monthly news conference on Utah station KUED-TV.
“That being said, judges have the responsibility to make sure that there’s consideration and compassion for a victim,” he said. “And judicial demeanor requires that to take place.”
Herbert said it was important that the judge “got the decision right,” with a sentence of up to life in prison.