Mysterious arguments over secret grand juries in Utah

Posted at 3:35 PM, Apr 01, 2014
and last updated 2014-04-02 11:53:29-04

SALT LAKE CITY -- A case shrouded in mystery went before the Utah Supreme Court, with lawyers talking about secret grand jury proceedings and trying not to reveal anything.

Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill has taken five judges to court, apparently over their refusal to appoint a grand jury to investigate a case. Sources tell FOX 13 he sought a grand jury last year for the November 2012 shooting of Danielle Willard by two West Valley City police officers.

Reached by FOX 13 on Tuesday, Gill refused to discuss it.

During Tuesday's hearing, lawyers and the high court justices talked around names and specific facts of the case. Utah Supreme Court Chief Justice Matthew Durrant mentioned closing the entire hearing if they wanted to get more specific.

Named in the case are five judges from across the state. FOX 13 has learned they make up the panel that decides if a grand jury should be convened. They are:

Grand Jury Panel Judges

  • Third District Court Judge Terry Christiansen, based in Salt Lake City;
  • Fourth District Court Judge Steven Hansen, based in Provo;
  • Fifth District Court Judge Eric Ludlow, based in St. George;
  • Third District Court Judge Kate Toomey, based in Salt Lake City;
  • Second District Court Judge W. Brent West, based in Ogden.

The entire case Gill has brought against the judges is under seal. The only record to be made public by the Utah Supreme Court calls for arguments on "the facts that the District Attorney certified that a grand jury was necessary and that Respondents declined to appoint a grand jury." The order forbids lawyers from saying anything else.

Read the Utah Supreme Court order here.

"Everything in a grand jury is confidential," said T.J. Tsakolos, the attorney for Gill, who declined to speak to reporters outside court.

This is the first time judges have been taken before the Utah Supreme Court -- which has the sole authority to discipline judges -- for their refusal to convene a grand jury.

"I've been with the courts for 20 years and this is the first time that I'm aware of that anyone has ever challenged a decision of a grand jury panel," said Brent Johnson, the attorney for the judges. "So we have no law, case law that says here's what we do in these circumstances."

During arguments, Tsakolos asked for a copy of the transcript between prosecutors and the judges who make up the grand jury panel. The justices debated whether he was entitled to it.

The justices also debated whether the hearing itself should be public. The Utah Supreme Court granted FOX 13's request to film the proceedings.

Tsakolos suggested they should be closed to discuss the merits of the case. Justice Jill Parrish suggested they could talk "in the abstract" about legal issues. Justice Thomas Lee agreed.

"I think there is a public interest at stake here, and I think striking the right balance is important," he said. "We should keep secret only what we have to keep secret."

In a statement late Tuesday, the union that represents many police officers in the state issued a statement on the case. The Fraternal Order of Police criticized Gill for taking the judges to the Utah Supreme Court. The statement reads:

"Once again Sim Gill shows how desperate he is to hide his mismanagement of this case behind the secrecy of a grand jury.  The judiciary correctly saw this case has been politicized by Sim Gill.  In response, Mr. Gill failed in an attempt to change the entire grand jury process in the legislature.  Now we see a third attempt through the Supreme Court.  Mr. Gill should stop attempting to hide his mistakes behind closed doors.  If he believes he can obtain a criminal conviction, let the facts speak in a public charging document."