PROVO — A flood of criticism is flowing in about a Provo judge's handling of a sexual assault case.
Constant calls have police evaluating how to keep the judge safe. The defendant's attorney is arguing statements from the bench are being taken out of context. And a victim in the case is calling the judge's comments a painful obstacle for others who have been sexually assaulted.
Fourth District Judge Thomas Low has made international headlines for his apparent praise of a former LDS bishop as he sentenced the man to prison last week for sexually abusing two women while they stayed at his home.
As he ordered Keith Vallejo, 43, to spend at least five years and potentially life in prison, the judge called Vallejo "an extraordinarily good man."
However, Vallejo's attorney, Ed Brass, said Monday that Low's one-liner isn't being considered in the context of his entire statement as he handed down his decision.
In an audio recording of the sentencing hearing, Low explains he sees five mitigating circumstances that would support a lesser punishment for Vallejo, and three aggravating factors that signal a need for incarceration. Explaining that those factors are not weighted equally, Low goes on to say that probation would not be appropriate because it would suggest Vallejo was not, in fact, guilty.
"I want to make it clear that court agrees with the verdict. I think the jury got it right. The court has no doubt that Mr. Vallejo is an extraordinarily good man and the letters written on his behalf were extraordinarily moving. But great men sometimes do bad things," Low says, his statements punctuated by long pauses, as he goes on to pronounce the prison sentence.
But one of the victims in the case, Julia Kirby, said Monday that after years of hiding what had happened to her and then wading through nearly a year of hearings in the case, Low's remarks at the hearing were painful and disheartening.
"I think it said to me — and sent a message not just to me but to other people that finally can get to a point of being able to even talk about the things that have happened to them — that not everyone is going to listen to you, so why even bother? People will still not believe you, people will still take others' sides, and in this case, take the side of the perpetrator," said Kirby, who agreed to be identified by KSL.
Low's statement Wednesday also addressed Kirby directly, calling her a "survivor" and voicing confidence she could become an advocate and comforter for others. He emphasized that Kirby and the second victim in the case were in no way responsible for the abuse they suffered.
"They were caught unawares in an environment and a place where they should have been at their safest, but that does not reflect on them. That could have happened to anyone," Low said.
As Low's comments spread online — with news organizations including the New York Daily News, Washington Post, Associate Press, Huffington Post and others picking up the story — Utah State Courts spokesman Geoff Fattah said a steady string of calls have come in from people voicing criticism or disappointment about the judge.
Fattah said the court "has received no credible threats" against Low, but as a precaution, law enforcement has been contacted about ensuring the judge is kept safe.
Vallejo was convicted by a jury in February of one count of object rape, a first-degree felony, and 10 counts of forcible sexual abuse, a second-degree felony. According to court documents, two women reported that Vallejo inappropriately touched them on multiple occasions as they slept on a couch while staying at his home separately in 2013 and 2014.
Vallejo was serving as a bishop for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints when allegations surfaced. In a statement last week, a spokeswoman emphasized that the LDS Church "has zero tolerance for abuse of any kind," and explained that Vallejo was released from his position in the congregation as soon as church leaders learned of the situation.
According to the AP, the Utah Judicial Performance Review Commission received about 120 emails, phone calls and Facebook messages about Low as of Monday. The commission is responsible for preparing and publishing evaluations intended to inform voters about judges' performance before retention elections.
The Utah Judicial Conduct Commission, which investigates allegations of judicial misconduct and then can choose whether to recommend disciplinary action by the Utah Supreme Court, does not report when it receives complaints against judges, according to a spokesman. The commission can recommend reprimand, censure, suspension, removal or involuntary retirement of a judge.
Kirby says she intends to file a complaint against Low and is assessing how to proceed.
Saying that she never wanted to speak to anyone about what Vallejo did to her — not to a judge and jury, not to reporters, not to anyone — Kirby explained she came forward out of concern for other victims, and worries now that Vallejo's actions are being forgotten in the wake of Low's controversial statements.
"There's never going to be any kind of rectification for what's happened to me, but I can prevent it from happening to somebody else," Kirby said. "People need to know that you can fight back and you can have some small amount of justice restored to you."
As outrage builds behind Low's comments, Brass fears critics are looking at the single moment from the tense two-hour sentencing hearing that has been "taken out of context."
In Brass' opinion, Low's comments were not meant to praise his client, but to explain that even someone who has led a good life can be capable of doing evil things based on the choices they make.
Brass, who had asked for jail time and probation for Vallejo, described the intense emotion that seemed to permeate the sentencing hearing, attended by more than 100 supporters and family members backing his client, and noted that Low had received dozens of letters on his behalf.
"He was trying to let everyone know why he was doing what he was doing," Brass said. "A message is sent when you send someone to prison, you don't have to spit on them on their way out the door."
Vallejo maintains his innocence and is considering an appeal, Brass said.
Following the sentencing last week, prosecutor Ryan McBride spoke out against Low's statement. He acknowledged that Low was likely trying to be respectful as he rendered his verdict, as judges should do, but that his comments went too far.
"It was more than respectful, it was approving," McBride said.
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