Woman raped by man who fled jail’s work-release program goes before Utah’s highest court

Posted at 7:57 PM, Nov 06, 2014
and last updated 2014-11-07 00:19:00-05

PROVO, Utah -- The victim of a brutal attack that occurred in Provo in 2010 was back in court on Thursday, still seeking justice against those she feels are responsible.

She went before the Utah Supreme Court on Thursday to ask that they reinstate a lawsuit against Utah County and two companies affiliated with a jail work-release program, which her attacker walked away from in June of 2010.

“It sounds like it was really easy just to walk away, and that’s not OK,” the 23-year-old woman said. FOX 13 News does not identify or show video of survivors of assaults except at the survivor's request and with their permission.

Shawn Michael Leonard, 38, was an inmate with Utah County when he left a work site in Lindon without notice. The next day, he brutally raped and beat the woman along the Provo River, leaving her for dead.

“I remember thinking, ‘I’m going to die,’” she said, “I was OK with it, then.”

Four years after the attack, the physical and emotional scars from the assault are still visible.

“My whole eye socket was smashed, and I think I broke my nose, fractured my jaw,” she explained. “It’s kind of hard waking up with a different face now.”

Leonard was sentenced to life in prison for the crime.

Now, the woman's attorney wants those in charge of him to also pay.

“They allowed this inmate to go free; he got free without any supervision, and he shouldn’t have been in that place,” said Scott Bell, who is representing the victim.

During the hearing Thursday, Bell asked the justices to rewrite the rules over whether the government is liable for an inmate’s actions against a third party, like his client.

The arguments were centered on a 1991 case, Rollins v. Peterson, where the Utah Supreme Court decided a custodian of an inmate is only liable if they know the inmate is a threat to an identifiable person(s).

However, Scott contended that was too broad.

“Utah’s standard for the duty owed by a custodian is different than any standard from any state we could find in the country,” he said. “And it’s worse in the burden it places on victim.”

During their questioning of Scott, the justices asked him to clarify how they would determine who is a custodian and what that custodian’s responsibilities are to an inmate.

“To render the state liable for mistakes in that process would be a huge step,” said Justice Christine Durham.

Changing the standard would have a drastic impact on the state and its prison programs, according to Peter Stirba, who is an attorney for Utah County.

“These things are kind of important, and the concern is every once in a while there is going to be a problem,” Stirba said. “And if that means the county then has liability, then it’s going to chill those programs.”

While Leonard’s criminal record dated back years, his convictions were never for violent crimes. As a result, Stirba argued that the county had no reason to believe Leonard would be violent.

However, even without a red flag on his record, the victim believes he never should have been able to leave the program, as he did.

“I just really want it to change, the law, the way we do things,” she said. “It should change.”

The court is expected to rule in 3 to 6 months.