A sexual assault survivor was forced to hear a judge call her convicted rapist “an extraordinarily good man” before sentencing him to prison this week.
Utah Judge Thomas Low allegedly held back tears as he sang the praises of Keith Vallejo, a former bishop of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints found guilty of sexually abusing two women in separate incidents dating back to at least 2013, reports local news channel KUTV.
“The court had no doubt that Mr. Vallejo is an extraordinarily good man,” Low told the courtroom Wednesday moments before sentencing Vallejo. “But great men, sometimes do bad things.”
Julia Kirby, who was 19 years old when her brother-in-law assaulted her, said she was appalled by Low’s decision to offer a glowing character assessment of Vallejo.
“That judge shouldn’t have done that,” Kirby told KUTV. “For him to say that in a court room in front the victim who was abused and raped by this man, that he is a great person, to me was unacceptable and unprofessional.”
Low faced backlash in February for allowing Vallejo, 43, to remain free until his sentencing after he was convicted of first-degree felony of object rape and 10 second-degree felonies of forcible sexual abuse. Low reversed the decision on March 30 and Vallejo has been in jail since then.
“The majority of people who are committing sexual crimes usually on the outside seem like pretty decent people. This is strategic and intentional on the part of the offender.”
The former Mormon bishop has maintained his innocence throughout the trial and refused to admit guilt on Friday.
“The justice system is funny,” Vallejo told the courtroom Friday, according to The Salt Lake Tribune. “The whole thing is geared to bullying you into confessing. The whole thing is geared to push you into pleading.”
Kristen Houser, the chief public affairs officer for the National Sexual Violence Research Center, said the judge’s choice of words could “definitely leave the wrong impact” on a rape victim.
“A blanket statement that ‘you’re a wonderful person’ is not appropriate for somebody who’s being sentenced for sexually assaulting two girls,” Houser said. “These are things that people consider when they’re wondering whether or not it’s worth it to report [their assault] to the police.”
Houser said the judge’s comments could serve to highlight the common myth that people who appear to be “upstanding citizens” can’t be sexual predators.
“The majority of people who are committing sexual crimes usually on the outside seem like pretty decent people,” Houser said. “This is strategic and intentional on the part of the offender. They hide behind these reputations.”
“We often see people who are upstanding citizens, who are doing tremendous things for their community, in secret are doing horrible, destructive things,” she added. “None of us think we hang out with monsters.”
Low eventually sentenced Vallejo to concurrent terms of one to 15 years in prison for second-degree felonies and five years to life for the rape conviction.