Salt Lake County experiencing prosecutor shortage of over 25{2099cc1b97d4d5af6b378c51833a8c0e04bb5da587377bd6b2cb473fa3104767}

SALT LAKE CITY (KUTV) — Criminal prosecutions in Salt Lake County could be in jeopardy.

Criminal prosecutions in Salt Lake County could be in jeopardy. A 2News investigation found that more than one of every four prosecutors has left the District Attorney’s Office.

The pandemic brought jury trials to a halt and created a significant court backlog. That combined with the prosecutor shortage is bringing even more grief for some murder victims’ families.

The mothers of two murder victims did not know about this shortage until we brought it to their attention and say they cannot comprehend how the DA’s office let it get to this point. There are currently 26 prosecutor vacancies at the DA’s office.

Both are directly impacted because the prosecutors on their cases are among those who are no longer working there.

Exit interview summary data on the DA’s office from Salt Lake County Human Resources obtained by 2News illustrates the scope of the problem. A total of 29 interviews were conducted from January 2020 through September 2021.

The data reveals 34{2099cc1b97d4d5af6b378c51833a8c0e04bb5da587377bd6b2cb473fa3104767} left for a better job opportunity. What’s more, 31{2099cc1b97d4d5af6b378c51833a8c0e04bb5da587377bd6b2cb473fa3104767} left due to pay/compensation. The same percentage indicated that they’d left the DA’s office due to work conditions. 21{2099cc1b97d4d5af6b378c51833a8c0e04bb5da587377bd6b2cb473fa3104767} of the employees who quit said there was a lack of recognition of their work.

The summary also contains five pages of comments from the exit interviews. Many are complimentary, but some are not and shed light on what has now become a reality, the DA’s office is hemorrhaging prosecutors. District Attorney Sim Gill did not deny that during an interview but prefers to call it a “loss of talent.”

Loss of Talent

A loss of talent Gill forewarned the Salt Lake County Council about during various meetings over the course of this year. Gill says when his office is fully staffed there are 100 assistant district attorneys.

Right now, he says his office is currently prosecuting 160 murder cases.

Gill maintains experienced prosecutors (senior attorney) are being poached by other government agencies that offer higher salaries, better benefits and lower caseloads.

A compensation presentation shown to the County Council indicated that in 2018, the District Attorney’s Office had 187 qualified candidates apply. But in 2021, only 91 qualified candidates applied.

That’s a 51{2099cc1b97d4d5af6b378c51833a8c0e04bb5da587377bd6b2cb473fa3104767} decrease.

According to the American Bar Association, fewer students are choosing law school than a decade ago. To make matters worse, the presentation said salaries are not keeping up with the rising cost of living and student loan debt.

Exit Interviews

2News Investigates asked the DA’s office for copies of exit interviews conducted by the Salt Lake County Human Resources Department from the prosecutors who resigned to see if there is more to it than that, but were told those records are confidential.

We reached out to the Salt Lake County Council in an effort to find out if there were other issues as to why one-quarter of the prosecution staff has departed the office.

Richard Jaussi, senior policy advisor to Chair Steve DeBry sent us exit interview summary data and comments from 29 exit interviews. Some of those comments:

“I just hope that Sim knows he creates such a wonderful positive experience for all of us. He made life very different for us than it was before he came.”

“I didn’t like the emphasis on stats over justice. The hiring of inexperienced attorneys and expecting them to jump in with little training. The lack of value given to experience and institutional knowledge. The lack of opportunity to advance.”

“The morale of the office has become a breeding ground of drama and who is in favor of who for the supervisors.”

“No accountability, no advocacy for staff needs, no direction, favoritism and no transparency with blatant discrimination and disregard for respect.”

“There is way too much favoritism in the agency. No opportunity for anyone unless they are in the small group of the favorite people. There is an obvious gender bias where females don’t have the opportunities as males. Salary disparities between males and females existed. Opportunities are not available for those who have proven themselves over years of service. Seniority means nothing to the agency. Advancement to attorneys who have been there 1/3 the time as other attorneys and have less experience. Recognition is to the favored.”

“She does not consider our ideas and suggestions if they don’t align with her own. She micromanages her staff to death. She really should not be in a supervisory position. I have never loved another job more than I loved my job at the DA’s office, but she made it miserable. She is the ONLY reason I left. If she was not there, I still would be.”

“My last supervisor is grossly overpaid and completely absent. She needed to actively participate and be present. She rarely if ever responded to phones [sic] calls or emails. She was dishonest, manipulative and motivated by her own personal agenda and not by public service.”

“I had numerous direct supervisors who were all fantastic.”

“Sim needs to pay attention to his Administrators. Follow up with them and evaluate them. See what they’re doing and why people are leaving.”

“It was very clear that if you don’t agree with Sim’s politics it was hard to progress.”

“The pay scale for the District Attorney is completely out of whack with the private market and the recent increase in costs of living. If the County doesn’t improve attorney pay, there is going to be a real crisis on the horizon. Recent law grads literally cannot afford to work there.”

During his interview, Gill was asked about inner office issues that may have contributed to the shortage.

He said, “It could be money. It can be work conditions. It could be somebody may not get along with somebody, you know. It could be a whole host of issues that’s what you have in any large office and we’re not immune from that.”

The reality, Gill says, it’s causing heavier caseloads for prosecutors assigned to take over for those who left. What’s more, the departure of experienced prosecutors is even more detrimental.

“You lose not one person, but you lose more than one person because, given their experience,” said Gill. Plus, those prosecutors assigned to take over cases need time to bring themselves up to speed on their new cases.

2News investigates found the prosecutor shortage is causing a ripple effect and in some cases victim’s families say they’ve been kept in the dark.

‘It’s like adding salt to my wound’

Kay Lynn Stafford’s son Cory Haney was stabbed to death on March 21, 2019 at his home in Salt Lake. Jesse Joel Bruce, 43, is charged with Haney’s murder.

Bruce is out on bail and on GPS monitoring as he awaits trial.

According to the probable cause statement and a 911 call Bruce made, he said he “killed his best friend” and then stated, “it was self-defense.”

Stafford says her son was “brutally butchered.”

The medical examiner’s report states: “There are 36 sharp and 32 blunt force injuries of varying degrees of severity.” Bruce pled not guilty and there’s a justification hearing scheduled in January on the self-defense claim.

Court records show trial dates have been set and postponed several times. In September the lead prosecutor on her son’s murder case from the inception left to go to work for another county attorney.

The co-prosecutor on the case was reassigned to juvenile court. Now, Stafford is having to get acquainted with a new prosecutor.

“Back to point zero again,” Stafford says. “I can’t understand how you could possibly have that kind of a shortage.”

‘We are victims: we need to be informed about what’s going on’

Cindee Montoya is in the same predicament. Her daughter Angela Montoya was shot in the head in a car on July 20, 2019 at the intersection of 3100 S 2700 W in West Valley City. Jayson Chase, 41, is behind bars charged with aggravated murder, two counts of attempted aggravated murder, obstruction of justice and possession of a firearm by a restricted person. Chase has entered a not guilty plea.

“My daughter was number 52 in the state of Utah killed by homicide, and to me she’s just not a number. My daughter was a beautiful, she was a beautiful person and she was the mother of three boys. She was an amazing person. She was not just a number,” Montoya says.

Like the Haney case, this case has also suffered setbacks. The prosecutor assigned left the DA’s office. Montoya says she’s waiting to find out which prosecutor will take over.

Montoya says, “It shouldn’t have to be this way, we are victims, we need to be informed about what’s going on.”

Victims Kept in the Dark?

When told that Stafford and Montoya felt they were kept in the dark, DA Gill said his office can always do better.

“When it comes to victims we can always do better. Whether we’re five prosecutors down or twenty prosecutors down, that doesn’t absolve us from the responsibility that we have.”

During the course of our reporting, the DA’s Office reached out to Stafford and Montoya and invited both of them to meet one-on-one with DA Gill to discuss their concerns. Both have accepted the invitation.

‘The buck stops with the DA’

DA Gill tried to raise flags to the Salt Lake County Council last month saying in their meeting, “I am in an absolutely acute situation.”

But Salt Lake County Council Chairman Steve DeBry issued a scathing rebuke.

“There’s a process we go through and the process is called budget session and if Sim Gill needs some money in his coffers for whatever reason you go through the budget process,” he said.

After hearing DeBry’s response, we asked if he felt the problems run deeper than compensation.

DeBry provided data and comments from exit interviews and issued the following statement in response to our question:

“Every office in the County is experiencing the same issues that the DA addressed with recruitment and pay. The Mayor will be presenting her proposed budget next week. The Council will be spending time over the next few weeks to review every request from elected officials and departments, including the District Attorney.

“The 2021 approved budget allocated resources for the District Attorney to hire 16 attorneys by April 2021. In the June budget process, the DA asked for pay increases and the Council raised attorney pay higher than his original request.

“Every request from the District Attorney this year has been approved, with the most recent pay adjustment on October 5th. If these requests aren’t sufficient to hire attorneys, the buck stops with the DA.

“As a law enforcement officer and Council Chair I sympathize with the victim’s families, especially if they feel that justice isn’t being served.”