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A former Davis County prosecutor was publicly reprimanded recently by the Utah State Bar for his conduct in a 2012 aggravated assault trial.
Matthew T. Johnson was given the reprimand in December, a year after a defense attorney filed a bar complaint accusing Johnson of lying to the judge during a trial. Details of the reprimand were published in the March/April issue of the Utah Bar Journal.
Johnson's violation of bar rules stemmed from a criminal case filed in connection with a September 2010 assault in which a now-47-year-old man was accused of beating another man so badly that he was in a coma for 15 days, according to court records.
A judge declared a mistrial during the November 2012 trial, according to court records, after Johnson tried to get a witness to acknowledge hearing a key statement made by the defendant, which was actually heard by someone else who had not been called to testify.
Johnson questioned the woman on the stand about whether she had asked the defendant if she should call the police after seeing the injured man outside her home to which, the defendant had replied, "No, he's fine and I don't want to get into trouble for a homicide."
The defendant's attorneys immediately objected and the jury was excused, according to court records. The defense attorneys told the judge that the woman's roommate had heard the statement in question.
"The Court then asked Johnson, 'Was the ["homicide comment"] said by the defendant to this witness?" court papers read. "Johnson replied, 'That's my reading, your honor, unless I'm reading it incorrectly."
The woman was then asked to read her own statements given to police, and told the court that her roommate had relayed the comment to her.
Defense attorneys successfully argued for a mistrial, arguing that Johnson's error was "so inflammatory and prejudicial" that it couldn't be cured by simply instructing jurors to disregard the hearsay statement.
Johnson later asserted that he had spoken to the roommate who had heard the "homicide statement," and he said that she did not want to testify for fear of retaliation, according to a stipulated record of facts submitted to the trial judge by defense attorney Jeremy Delicino and another deputy Davis County attorney. But Davis County attorney's office investigators could not find any record of Johnson telephoning the roommate and noted that any contact she had with the attorney's office was with an investigator, not Johnson.
The roommate had not been subpoenaed by Johnson as a trial witness, according to court records.
Delicino said he filed the bar complaint in February 2014, telling the Office of Professional Conduct that Johnson lied to the judge to gain an unfair advantage. Delicino also reported that Johnson failed to turn over witness reports that could have been exculpatory to his client, who had insisted he was defending himself.
Delicino said last week that the reprimand was inadequate.
"Imposing a sanction that amounts to a slap on the wrist is an affront to the countless lawyers prosecutors and defense attorneys alike who strive daily to ensure that the rights of each defendant are protected," Delicino said in a statement. "Mr. Johnson's poor decisions in this case imperiled the rights of my client and caused him great harm. Sadly, by agreeing to a sanction without any real consequence, the Office of Professional Conduct has implicitly imperiled the rights of all defendants and may also cause incalculable harm to our justice system."
But attorney Greg Skordas, who represented Johnson in the bar disciplinary process, said Friday that the sanction was appropriate, adding that it is rare for prosecutors to be the subject of bar discipline.
"If he had lied, his punishment would have been significantly worse," Skordas said. "It was a matter of lack of preparation and a mistake of attributing a comment from a witness to another witness."
The case against Delicino's client was eventually dismissed at the request of Davis County Attorney Troy Rawlings. Johnson resigned from the county attorney's office shortly after the mistrial and a subsequent investigation, according to court records.
Skordas said his client still works as an attorney in Weber and Davis counties. Johnson is listed as a guardian ad litem in the Utah Bar's directory.