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Kent Hart was never the loudest voice in the room.
He was a quiet worker, according to attorney Cara Tangaro, who worked tirelessly fighting for the underdog in Utah's criminal justice system. But his impact on the state's legal community has been huge: He served as executive director for the statewide criminal defense attorney association, he mentored and taught other attorneys, and he championed for change and reform for those accused of crimes.
Those who know the 50-year-old attorney are now hoping for a miracle, after he slipped and fell into a Norwegian waterfall while hiking Sunday. He is presumed dead, though officials had not located his body as of Tuesday despite a heavy search and rescue effort that included helicopter searches, divers and alpine rescue teams with dogs. The search continued Tuesday with crews sending in a type of underwater robot to search in currents too strong for divers, according to attorney Kathryn Nester, federal public defender for the district of Utah.
"Since his tragic accident, I have been in close contact with his family and the American Embassy," Nester said. "And they remain constantly vigilant and hopeful of finding Kent soon. One cannot be a public defender without being an eternal optimist, and it is this hope for humanity, this joy in service, that most characterizes Kent. Our best hopes right now are with his family and we will continue to help in any way that we can."
'It's just unbelievable' • In a Facebook video, Hart's son, Evan, said his father had slipped and fallen from a trail into the 820-foot Hivjufossen waterfall in Hallingdal, Norway, during a late Sunday afternoon hike. He was in vacationing in the country with his new wife, Giovanna, and his two sons, before Evan Hart started school there.
As news of the accident spread throughout Utah's legal community, messages of support and fond memories have flooded the Utah Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, where Hart has served as the executive director since 2009.
"Kent Hart was well-loved," said Tangaro, the president-elect of the association. "... [He] was a bridge-builder and a peacemaker. He made huge strides in this state for indigent defense and was so looking forward to upcoming changes that truly impact the lives of criminal defendants."
Tangaro shared a number of those messages Tuesday notes from attorneys who remembered Hart as a mentor, a leader, a "once-in-a-generation" type of person who genuinely cared about those who he helped.
One attorney wrote that Hart was taken for granted, a friendly face who was always there for a pep talk, to brainstorm or to offer advice.
"I am sorry, Kent Hart, that I took you for granted," the attorney wrote. "That is one lesson I wish you hadn't taught me."
The statewide association for criminal defense lawyers was one of Hart's great passions, according to current president and attorney Randall Richards, who said Hart has built up what was initially a relatively small organization into one with a current membership of over 500.
"The services he's providing to those attorneys trickles down to each of the criminal defendants," Richards said Tuesday. "It's just unbelievable."
In Hart's absence, Richards said the volunteer board members will likely appoint an interim executive director at some point.
"I'm sure we are going to mess it up a little bit," he said. "This was his baby. And just out of respect for him alone, we're going to carry on the organization."
Legal career • A Salt Lake County native, Hart graduated from the University of Utah's S.J. Quinney College of Law in 1992. He spent most of his career working as a public defender, and had worked as an appeals attorney and as a specialist in capital cases as a federal public defender in Utah since 2005.
"There are simply no words for such a tragedy," Norman L. Reimer, executive director for the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said in a statement. "Through his tireless work for many years as a public defender to his steadfast commitment to advocating for a more fair and humane criminal justice system, Kent has always set an example for his peers to emulate. In addition to his splendid work on behalf of Utah's criminal defense bar, Kent has been a powerful and eloquent voice for reform on the national stage."
Marina Lowe, legislative and policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah, said Tuesday that Hart has worked closely with the ACLU on a number of issues, including repealing the death penalty, pushing against gang injunctions, along with police issues with body cameras and forcible entry. In recent years, he had thrown his weight into pushing for change and reform in Utah's anemic public defender system.
Lowe said Hart's presumed death has left the organization "completely devastated and heartbroken."
"He leaves a huge hole behind," she said. "It's hard to imagine who could step into his shoes. I think Kent had the unique quality of being a bridge-builder. [He believed] we can improve the system and make changes and still all remain friends."
Hart was "always able to see the big picture" as he worked with others through a long and complicated process to try to improve services for indigent defendants, said Paul Boyden, the executive director for the Statewide Association of Prosecutors. He was a quick study, Boyden said, and an excellent writer.
"We will miss him," Boyden said. "We have lost a great contributor to the legal profession and to the community. Especially, we have lost a good and decent man."
Davis County Attorney Troy Rawlings who last year co-authored a law journal article with Hart that detailed issues with prosecutors handing over favorable evidence to defendants said Tuesday that Hart exemplified qualities that make a great defense attorney: Good judgment, legal knowledge, communication skills and concern for human decency.
"Kent's impeccable work and career matter a lot and to many," Rawlings said. "Kent Hart, the man, mattered even more."
P A GoFundMe account has been set up to help with Hart family expenses, and to possibly continue a privately-funded search: https://www.gofundme.com/2gbcwztk