A Utah judge is facing a deluge of complaints after calling a former Mormon bishop convicted of rape an “extraordinarily good man” who did something wrong, a judicial oversight organization said Friday.
The criticism began around the time Judge Thomas Low let Keith Robert Vallejo out of custody after a jury found him guilty of 10 counts of forcible sexual abuse and one count of object rape, said Jennifer Yim, executive director of the Utah Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission.
But Yim said most of the roughly 40 emails, six voicemails and some Facebook messages received since late March came after Low sentenced Vallejo to up to life in prison and seemed to get emotional during the hearing.
Julia Kirby, 23, one of Vallejo’s victims, said she was shocked by the judge’s sympathy.
“That judge didn’t care about me,” she said Friday. “He only cared about the person he was convicting, and I think that is really kind of despicable.”
Kirby agreed to have her name published to show the judge that she will not let him get away with the comments.
Kirby said she was 19 when she said Vallejo, a relative, groped her multiple times when she stayed at his house while attending Brigham Young University in 2013.
Ryan McBride, the prosecutor on the case, said Low’s comments were inappropriate and that they may have come in response to more than 50 character letters about Vallejo, most of them detailing the good things he has done. The defendant’s brother spoke at the hearing and compared Vallejo to Jesus in making the argument that he was wrongly convicted, McBride said.
“I don’t think it’s wrong to acknowledge the good things that someone has done in their lives,” the prosecutor said. “But I think whenever you do that in a case like this, you’ve also got to say, ‘But it doesn’t excuse what you’ve done.’ ”
Low declined comment through a court spokesman.
“I maintain my innocence,” Vallejo said during the hearing after a brief comment on how the justice system bullies people into confessing.
The abuse occurred in Provo, a Mormon stronghold that is home to Brigham Young University. Low attended the school, where almost all students are Mormon, but it is not clear whether he is a member of the faith.
There was no indication that the judge had any prior relationship with Vallejo, McBride said. Low would have to disclose something like that, he said.
In the faith, bishops are regular church members who lead their congregations for four to five years. The position is unpaid and part of the religion’s lay clergy structure that makes it different from many other religions.
Low’s comments also sparked outrage Friday from advocates for sexual assault victims.
“The signal that it sends to sexual violence survivors is that if you choose to disclose, that we’re still going to treat your perpetrator as if they’re a good person,” said Turner Bitton, executive director of the Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault.