A Utah judge has sparked controversy for what he said while sentencing a former Mormon bishop convicted of sexual abuse.
43-year-old Keith Robert Vallejo was convicted by a jury on nearly two dozen counts of felony sexual abuse, after two relatives testified that he assaulted them during visits to his home back in 2013 and 2014; one of the victims was a teenager when the assaults occurred. Fourth District Judge Thomas Low sentenced him to up to life in prison, but not before raising eyebrows in the courtroom with this statement:
"The court has no doubt that Mr. Vallejo is an extraordinary, good man. But great men sometimes do bad things."
Media reports say Low also became choked up and emotional during sentencing — all while at least one of the victims was in the courtroom. That's prompted complaints from prosecutors and victims advocacy groups.
A Utah civil rights group is working on filing a formal complaint against Low, saying his comments raise serious questions about impartiality. "[He] is clearly showing favoritism towards the perpetrator," Mark Lawrence, head of the Restore Our Humanity organization, told KUTV-2.
The same judge was also criticized for allowing Vallejo to remain free on bail after his conviction, though that decision was later reversed.
There's no known connection between Low and Vallejo, and prosecutors say the judge would have had to disclose any ties before the church official's trial. It's also unclear whether Low may have been biased toward Vallejo for religious reasons.
Nevertheless, victims advocacy groups say Low crossed the line. Turner Britton, the executive director of the Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault, told ABC 4 Utah the judge's comments are the "direct result of rape culture."
"There is an attitude out there that really coddles perpetrators, and really makes victims accountable for what happened to them."
The case is already drawing parallels to the Brock Turner trial in California, where a judge handed down a relatively light sentence against a former member of the Stanford University swim team for raping an unconscious woman.
Judge Aaron Persky was cleared of any wrongdoing in that decision, and has since recused himself from overseeing future criminal cases. In the meantime, Persky faces a mounting recall campaign, though the local district attorney has come out to support him. The San Jose Mercury News reports "recall supporters this summer plan to start collecting the 58,634 signatures they need to get the recall on the June 2018 primary election ballot."
The controversy in Utah also comes during Sexual Assault Awareness Month — and is especially pertinent in light of recent estimate that the state could have the highest rate of sexual violence in the country.