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Prosecutor covering two counties is stretched thin–raising questions about the quality of justice in Wayne County

(Eric Peterson | The Utah Investigative Journalism Project) Wayne and Emery County Attorney Michael Olsen steps back into the Loa Sixth District Court in Wayne County after negotiating with a public defender at a hearing on August 26, 2019.

The following story was written and reported by Eric Peterson of The Utah Investigative Journalism Project in partnership with The Salt Lake Tribune and The Insider newspaper in Wayne and Garfield counties.

Loa • On July 31, 2018, a Wayne County sheriff’s deputy pulled up on an ugly scene: A woman stood in the driveway of her home. Her face was red and her back was covered in dirt.

Between sobs, the woman, whom we’re identifying only as “Jane,” told the officer her husband was inside and was threatening to kill her and then himself. He had blown up when she asked him to take a drug test, she said, and she ran to a neighbor’s house for shelter.

She never made it.

Jane got within 2 feet of the neighbor’s door when her husband caught up with her and dragged her through the dirt back to their house, the sheriff’s report said.

The officer got Jane into a car and away from the area as other officers on the scene moved to keep onlookers safely away when they suddenly realized Jane’s husband was fleeing the house on an all-terrain vehicle, spotting him just in time to see him jump a dirt embankment south of the house and disappear. Officers gave chase, sirens blaring and lights flashing as they raced alongside the ATV on the old highway trail running parallel to State Road 24.

By the time they tried to cut him off at the Gun Range Road turnoff, all that was left of the suspect was a cloud of dust where the ATV had disappeared into “The Velvets,” a rugged series of trails popular among off-roaders and mountain bicyclists but inaccessible to cars.

He hid in the mountains for two days before grudgingly surrendering to police, saying he had made a terrible mistake and that he had wanted to kill himself.

In the sheriff’s report supporting criminal charges against him, the officer wrote that he was a “substantial danger” to the community and “likely to flee.”

A few days later, he appeared in court in shackles on a charge of kidnapping. The prosecutor, Wayne County Attorney Michael Olsen, was not there. Instead, Mandy Larsen, a deputy county attorney from Sevier County, was standing in for him.

Olsen had passed a message to Larsen, not to let the court release the defendant or reduce his bail. The husband’s defense attorney, however, successfully argued that his client, who had a steady job and no criminal record, should have his bail trimmed, eventually to $5,000. And Jane’s husband was released from jail.

Olsen would not respond to questions whether the outcome might have been different had he been present in court that day.

Jane’s husband did not respond to a request for comment made through his attorney.

Double duty

Olsen is a busy prosecutor. In addition to being the Wayne County attorney, he’s also the county attorney in adjacent Emery. The latter county has four times the population of tiny Wayne, and that’s reflected in Olsen’s compensation and how he divides his time.

His salary and benefits from Emery County (topping $170,000 a year) are four times what he draws from Wayne County ($44,553). And he spends the vast majority of his time in his Castle Dale office, about an hour and a half drive from his Wayne County office in Loa.
Despite the juggling act, Olsen said in an interview that his work for Wayne County has been exemplary.

“If you look at the cases I’ve handled in that [Wayne County] court,” Olsen said, “it’s probably the most efficient in the state.”

He said that it was unfair to judge his performance based just on the case against Jane’s husband. “You only know one particular case.” he said.

But, according to court records, there have been issues with multiple cases: absences from court, mistakes in filings, cases dropped without putting up a fight and complaints raised by the court that cases were being delayed too long. When detailed examples of these issues were sent to Olsen in writing followed by a request for comment, he did not respond.

Leaving Loa

On July 1, 2017, LeEllen McCartney resigned as the Wayne County attorney. She cited a number of reasons, including personal issues, but also a lack of resources. Not only was she without an assistant, she also initially had to buy her own paper, printer ink and other supplies to stock the windowless basement office.

“I still tried to keep the position as a part-time job, but I also wasn’t going to do the job ‘halfway,’” McCartney wrote in a letter to the editor of The Insider, a weekly newspaper covering Wayne and Garfield counties. “My military career taught me that when something needs to be done, you do it.”

McCartney, however, had clashed with the County Commission, which she said often disregarded her legal advice, especially on Utah’s Open and Public Meetings Act. She also complained that she was “directed” to drop a ticket against the friend of a commissioner.

Primarily, though, she was frustrated the commission would not fund an assistant for her office, but instead found money to hire an aide in another department even though she said commissioners had previously determined the position was unnecessary.

Olsen stepped into the job, and his workload exploded.

In 2016, when working solely as the Emery County attorney, Olsen filed 32 cases (three misdemeanors and 29 felonies). In 2018 — his first full year as the Wayne County attorney — between the two jurisdictions he filed 56 cases (18 misdemeanors and 38 felonies).

As the Wayne County attorney, Olsen is only in Loa once a week to meet with victims and twice a month for court. Not only does spend most of his time in Emery County, but he also has staff and deputy prosecutors there – a luxury not provided in Wayne.

Last year, Olsen filed 34 cases in Emery County (seven misdemeanors and 27 felonies) and 22 cases in Wayne County (11 misdemeanors and 11 felonies).Those totals do not reflect his court appearances in cases that were filed in previous years.

A review of court records on all his felony cases shows that Olsen did not miss a single court date in Emery County last year. But in Wayne County he was absent from court on the first day of four cases.

In one of those cases, a felony drug possession, there was no prosecutor in the courtroom and, according to the docket, the judge proceeded without him. In the other three cases — including Jane’s — a deputy county attorney from Sevier County filled in for Olsen during those first appearances, although the stand-ins weren’t able to prevail against defense arguments.

“I have never missed a court date,” Olsen said in an interview before stopping to clarify that it’s possible if the cases were in Richfield he might have missed them. Because Wayne County doesn’t have a jail, some of its cases are heard in Richfield in Sevier County. Olsen did not respond to a request for comment on the court documents showing his absences.

“It’s surprising if the prosecutor is not at the initial appearance; that is unusual,” said Adam Gershowitz, a professor at William & Mary College of Law in Virginia.

He’s researched the problems that arise with overworked prosecutors and says that while many people have heard of problems arising from overburdened public defenders, similar problems can affect prosecutors as well. Lacking time, especially with victims and witnesses, can leave prosecutors without the facts needed to make appropriate plea deals, or, alternatively, know when to push for trial.

“The defense attorney is [then] at an advantage,” Gershowitz said, “and they may benefit from the prosecutor not turning over all the stones.”

(Eric Peterson | The Utah Investigative Journalism Project) The Wayne County courthouse in Loa.

Making Deals

In Jane’s case, Olsen’s lack of time was painfully clear when she met him in early July. Though she had scheduled the meeting a week earlier, Olsen didn’t bring the case file with him and could tell her only that he had a plea deal worked out.

She was frustrated with the pace of the prosecution because her estranged husband had allegedly violated the protective order on multiple occasions, driving past her work and shouting at her, among what she says were other threatening situations. For these violations, however, he spent little time in jail.

Olsen, in an interview, pointed out that things have changed since the Legislature adopted the Criminal Justice Reform Initiative in 2015 that diverted more offenders away from jail and into treatment and other programs.

“Since the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, we’re getting much less jail time for people,” Olsen said.

Olsen doesn’t try cases in Wayne County. Court records show his criminal work there is exclusively aimed at cutting plea deals, which are worked out before any preliminary hearings to determine whether there’s sufficient evidence to go to trial.

In Emery County, his office does do some preliminary hearings, and there is a trial scheduled this month, although trials still are not common among the cases filed.

In one Wayne County case in October 2017, Olsen was prosecuting a man originally charged under the previous county attorney for allegedly owning a firearm while being a known felon. Sheriff’s deputies had been called to the house, and the suspect’s wife said that he had a gun despite his three prior felony convictions in Carbon County on drug charges and a record of violent assault.

The defense lawyer filed a motion to exclude testimony from the wife and deputy. Rather than filing a counter motion, Olsen dismissed the charges.

In two separate 2018 cases, court records show the judge warned that cases had dragged on too long to allow more time to work out settlements and pleas. In one of those cases, the record shows that after a settlement had been reached, the prosecutor mistakenly entered the wrong crime against the defendant, marking the charge down as assault against a police officer instead of the lesser crime of aggravated assault. The error was spotted and corrected before sentencing.

In yet another case, this one from 2017, the defendant failed to appear for a court date. The bail bond company wasn’t notified the defendant had skipped until months later, by which time the court found the bond company no longer could be held liable for the $3,290 bail.

Wayne County Commissioner Newell Harward, who has authority over law enforcement issues in the county, said he’d heard no complaints about Olsen’s work.

“We’ve been exceptionally happy with him,” Harward said. “We haven’t got resources like other counties, but I think we’re still served well, and we receive sufficient advice and counsel and haven’t been left undone on anything.”

Feeling threatened

Jane, who still feels threatened by her estranged husband, has a very different view.

She finds the local justice system to be infuriating. Her victim advocate tries to help but can’t explain the case, and when she meets with Olsen, he can’t give her definitive answers. Local law enforcement has been supportive, but officers were limited in what they could do — one deputy gave her a canister of Mace and wished her luck.

Olsen has filed new charges against Jane’s husband for violating protective orders — two in December, seven more in February and one just a couple of weeks ago. Instead of addressing them separately now, Olsen has joined with the defense attorney in asking that the court delay those hearings and consider them in conjunction with the original kidnapping case.

Jane says she still hasn’t been given many specifics about a planned plea bargain.

Olsen said the sentence will hinge on a presentencing report. He also said Jane had the opportunity to speak with a victim advocate, and that it’s not uncommon for people to feel frustrated by the justice system.

Olsen said the sentence will hinge on a presentencing report. He also said Jane had the opportunity to speak with a victim advocate, and that it’s not uncommon for people to feel frustrated by the justice system.

“I love the people of Wayne County,” Olsen said. “I made a commitment to them, and I don’t shortchange them.”

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1 Comment
  1. Thank you for this reporting. I live in Grand County and see cases like the “Jane” case closed in the courts without reasonable explanation. The unreasonable explanation is obvious. The justice system in all counties, and especially in rural counties, is under funded by the tax system. The mantra, “no more taxes” is popular as a campaign slogan and is carried out by our county commissioners or councilors. The justice system is easily derailed when no one is watching and when prosecutor’s offices are under staffed and under funded. The most obvious example is how the power of the justice department and the FBI has been compromised by a president whose personal needs trump the needs of citizens.

    Under-funding county prosecutors offices induce creative solutions that sound good but become big problems when they are practiced. The Wayne County Prosecutor is certainly a good person, but no one can work efficiently in an adversarial system when he has to field many curve balls thrown at him by a defense attorney that are meant to throw him off balance for just enough time to miss a justice system requirement. A defense attorney playing the system can accomplish much more than winning a trial.

    I am supportive of investigative journalism and will support your efforts. There is much to be investigated to support justice.

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