Judge under fire for praising convicted rapist during sentencing

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A woman says she is shocked by a Utah judge's comments in which he called a former Mormon bishop convicted of sexually assaulting her a "good man." (WPVI)

A woman says she is shocked by a Utah judge's comments in which he called a former Mormon bishop convicted of sexually assaulting her a "good man" during his sentencing hearing.

Julia Kirby said Friday that Judge Thomas Low appeared to care more for her attacker than he did about her.

"He only cared about the person he was convicting, and I think that is really kind of despicable," said the 23-year-old Kirby, who has given The Associated Press permission to publish her name

Low sentenced Keith Robert Vallejo to up to life in prison this week after a jury found him guilty of 10 counts of forcible sexual abuse and one count of object rape.

Kirby said she was 19 when Vallejo, a relative, groped her multiple times when she stayed at his house while attending Brigham Young University in 2013.

Kirby plans to file an official complaint against Low in the hopes of getting him removed as a judge.

Low is facing a deluge of complaints after saying "The court has no doubt that Mr. Vallejo is an extraordinarily good man.... But great men sometimes do bad things."

The criticism began around the time Low freed Vallejo from custody after a jury convicted him, 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 this week and seemed to get emotional during the hearing.

Ryan McBride, the prosecutor on the case, said Low's comments were inappropriate and said it 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 to 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," Turner Bitton, executive director of the Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

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