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SALT LAKE CITY — After revelations that the Utah Department of Corrections withheld medical records in a death penalty case, derailing a sentencing trial and prompting a plea deal, 74 additional cases are being reviewed to ensure compliance.
Steven Crutcher, 37, had pleaded guilty to aggravated murder, a first-degree felony and a capital offense, in the death of a fellow inmate and was advancing toward a sentencing trial scheduled for this month where jurors would have decided whether he would have faced the death penalty.
However, after the Department of Corrections failed to turn over 1,572 pages of medical records to Crutcher's attorney, even when ordered to do so by a judge, prosecutors pulled the option of the death penalty and offered Crutcher a sentence of life in prison with no possibility of parole. He accepted.
Following a furious admonition from 6th District Judge Wallace Lee, the Department of Corrections — which issued a statement following the hearing saying the records hadn't been released due to a "misinterpretation" of the judge's order — set about reviewing records requests made since Jan. 1, 2015, through the state's Government Records Access Management Act, court orders and subpoenas.
In its review of 2,708 requests, the department identified 74 cases where the same error could have occurred, according to a spokesman. Representatives from the department are now contacting attorneys in each of the cases to determine whether they received all the records they sought.
More than half have been resolved following conversations with a single attorney overseeing them all, according to Department of Corrections spokesman Steve Gehrke, and the department is in talks with the Salt Lake Legal Defender's Office about several more.
"That leaves about a dozen cases that we have to reach out to individual attorneys on and, again, in those cases I need to stress that we don't know that they're going to ask for any supplemental records to be provided, but we want to reach out to make the offer because we know this issue has been out there," Gehrke said.
In addition to the case review, all department employees who deal with records must now complete a thorough re-training, Gehrke said, and additional education about answering records requests will be added to trainings for new hires.
After Crutcher took the deal in a March 28 hearing and was sentenced to prison for the 2013 murder of Rolando Cardona-Gueton, 62, Lee voiced his frustration over the department's lack of cooperation in the case and his fear the same problem could be occurring in other cases.
Lee ordered a letter about his concerns drafted to Department of Corrections Executive Director Rollin Cook, who resigned earlier this month, to the warden's of both prisons and to Gov. Gary Herbert's office.
A representative from the Utah Attorney General's Office was called before the judge to explain why the department hadn't complied with his order.
"We do sincerely apologize, this was a failure on our part, and we recognize that and we apologize to the court and we apologize to the state and we apologize to defense counsel that we did not produce all of these records," said assistant attorney general Amanda Montague, according to an audio recording of the hearing.
Montague indicated that medical records staff were confused about what records should be released, believing that providing a list of Crutcher's prescribed medications rather than his full history was sufficient.
"They didn't realize, that they needed to provide every piece of paper, every electric file that we had, to support that list of medications," Montague said.
Lee pushed back, saying he didn't understand how his judicial order to provide all records could have been misunderstood and that he was "beyond angry" about the department's failure to comply.
"I am angry with the Department of Corrections. This was totally wrong. It makes me doubt the credibility of everything I hear from the Department of Corrections. It was sneaky and it was deceitful and there is no proper excuse that can satisfy me that this was an honest mistake. It was wrong on every level," Lee said.
Crutcher's attorney, Ed Brass, also questioned the opposition the defense team faced in its efforts to talk to medical professionals who treated Crutcher, ultimately being forced to get a court order compelling them to talk.
"Keep in mind this is a different branch of the same government that is trying to kill Mr. Crutcher," Brass emphasized.
Montague said that faced with a number of regulations about releasing records, medical professionals are wary of providing more than they should.
"They get nervous about disclosing things without court orders because they think someone is going to sue them or they are going to be criminally liable for disclosing a medical record that they shouldn't have disclosed," Montague said.
Lee insisted that the Department of Corrections must make changes and be forthcoming with the information it is expected to provide in other cases.
"Something has to change there, because it has been like pulling teeth in this case to get them to be honest with us, and that is totally wrong. That is something I would expect from Russia or North Korea or some other place like that, not a society like we have under the constitution. It has got to stop," Lee said.
Brass emphasized in his statement that prosecutors in the case should be commended for their work, noting they had been honest and responsive as both sides prepared for trial and had assisted the defense in seeking Crutcher's medical records.
"I do not respect what was done in this case by the Department of Corrections to withhold those records and put Mr. Crutcher in a situation where he might have been facing the death penalty," Brass said. "But in recognition of what's fair and what constitutes due process, (Sanpete County Attorney Kevin Daniels) opted to do what was the right thing in this case and give Mr. Crutcher a life without parole sentence."