Judge Refers to Defendant as a 'Great Man'—the Only Problem Is He Was Being Sentenced for Rape at the Time
“Innocent until proven guilty” is a staple of the American justice system. But what happens when members of that justice system believe an offender is innocent even after conviction?
Julia Kirby — who gave the Associated Press permission to publish her name — was 19 years old when a relative groped her. She was a student at Brigham Young University when she began staying at Keith Robert Vallejo's home — which was located near the Provo, Utah, school.
However, it was Vallejo himself who violated her in 2013.
And in 2014, Vallejo went even further with another young woman staying with him. His second victim — who has remained unidentified — was just 17 years old. According to the Guardian, the victim told police that Vallejo groped and raped her while she slept on his couch.
When the two women finally built up the courage to come forward against Vallejo — a former Mormon bishop — the church dismissed him from his position. The Guardian reported that a spokesperson for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints notified Vallejo of his termination after the church's leaders discovered the accusations against him.
But Vallejo maintained his innocence. During his hearing, Vallejo's brother reportedly likened him to Jesus when referring to his wrongful conviction.
Despite his defense, Vallejo was found guilty of 10 counts of forcible sexual abuse and one count of object rape according to the AP.
Vallejo was sentenced to up to life in prison on Wednesday. However, the judge who presided over the case is now the one facing some serious heat.
Jennifer Yim, executive director of the Utah Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission, told the AP that complaints against Judge Thomas Low began arising when Low freed Vallejo from custody after he was convicted.
However, Yim told the AP that the majority of complaints pertaining to Low virtually poured in after Vallejo's sentencing. According to reports, while Low was sentencing Vallejo, the judge reportedly grew emotional.
Low, who also attended BYU, addressed the convicted rapist in front of the court — including at least one of Vallejo's victims — saying:
“The court has no doubt that Mr Vallejo is an extraordinarily good man ... but great men sometimes do bad things.”
Kirby, now 23, told the AP that Low seemingly had more compassion for her rapist than for both victims, saying:
“He only cared about the person he was convicting, and I think that is really kind of despicable.”
Prosecutor Ryan McBride told the Guardian that there is no evidence pointing toward a friendship of any kind between Low and Vallejo. McBride also said that if the two had, in fact, previously known each other, Low would have been required to disclose that information.
However, McBride did tell the Guardian that Low's comment may have been in response to the 50-plus letters he received on behalf of Vallejo's good character. McBride said:
“I don't think it’s wrong to acknowledge the good things that someone has done in their lives. 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.'”
And McBride's sentiment is one that many people agree with.
Turner Bitton, executive director of the Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault, told the AP:
“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.”
Due to Low's comments and actions throughout Vallejo's hearing, Kirby is reportedly planning on filing an official complaint against him in pursuit of his removal from the bench.