Students at University of Utah College of Social Work take a front seat on defense team in murder case

Rob Butters enlisted the help of U students in his forensic social worker class to work on a case to give them real-life experience in the field.

(March 24, 2015) —Details of the case haunted the normally quiet suburban community of Draper, Utah: On March 11, 2012, the body of a severely beaten 15-year-old girl turned up in the Jordan River.

Few clues —outside of a bloody sneaker belonging to the victim, identified as Anne Grace Kasprzak —initially emerged.

For more than two years, the girl’s family waited for answers about what happened the night their daughter left their Riverton home and wound up dead in a neighboring town a few miles away.

Then in October, a break in the case: Colorado police arrested a 17-year-old suspect in connection with the crime. He had been the girl’s 14-year-old boyfriend at the time of her death, and she’d told him she was pregnant, according to police reports. The boy, extradited to Utah, was charged in 3rd District Juvenile Court with murder, a first-degree felony, and obstruction of justice, a second-degree felony, for tampering with evidence.

The case is now playing out in court, with University of Utah assistant professor Rob Butters among the list of witnesses making the argument that the teen boy belongs in the juvenile court system until he is 21 years old, instead of being certified as an adult where he could be punished by up to life in prison.

Judge Dane Nolan will make the decision on whether the boy should be certified as an adult after evaluating evidence from both prosecutors and defense attorneys. The case is the latest in a string of murders committed by juveniles in recent years where judges have been left to make tough calls to weigh what’s best for public safety, what’s just for victims and what is a fair punishment considering the young age of perpetrators involved in some egregious crimes. Those difficult questions are why Butters, who is also director of the Utah Criminal Justice Center at the University of Utah, has turned the Kasprzak proceedings into a live case study for students enrolled in his Social Work 6702 (advanced forensics) course this semester.

About 20 students, most in the second year of their Master of Social Work program, have worked to build a case that the juvenile defendant and general public would best be served by keeping the defendant in juvenile court. Students learned a broad set of skills in the process, including how to effectively work with offenders and victims of crime; how to interact with the court system; how to assess an offender’s risk level to the community and gage treatment resources; and how to gather testimony to build a compelling argument.

“One of my goals as a faculty member and a researcher-practitioner is to try to integrate what’s going on in the community with what I’m teaching my students,” said Butters. “As researchers we must ask, how do we derive justice from a tragedy like this and what does that look like?”

Butters worked with the boy’s defense team, including attorneys Christopher Bown and Bill Russell, who agreed to allow students to assist Butters with his own testimony preparation through research. The defense team reached out to the College of Social Work for assistance through the state-of-the-art Bridge Training Clinic, in which counseling services can be deeply discounted for people who cannot afford counseling services under normal circumstances.

The research process led to Butters and the students’ ultimate finding that the defendant —if convicted—will be best served in the juvenile system. The recommendation cites numerous studies that show youth offenders often have better outcomes after serving their sentences in youth facilities, instead of being housed with hardened, older criminals in adult prisons.

“The evidence is incontrovertible that sending this young person to prison will be detrimental to his development, growth and personality. In addition, because of the iatrogenic effects of prison, he will almost surely emerge as a higher risk to the community,” Butters wrote in a recommendation to Nolan.

“Based on the best scientific instruments we have, and in my opinion, (the defendant) is a low risk to commit future crimes. The absolutely worst thing we can do for a young person who is a low risk to commit future crime is to incarcerate him with a few thousand moderate and high-risk adult prisoners. Certification as an adult means increasing long-term risk to the community and this is not justice,” Butters wrote.

The defendant in the Kasprzak case is the second to receive assistance from one of Butters’ classes of future forensic social workers. In 2009, a different team of students led by Butters took on the case of Hunter Farani, who was barely 14 when he shot teenager JoJo Brandstatt on a West Valley City golf course with three other gang-affiliated defendants.

In Farani’s case, defense attorneys argued the boy’s age prohibited him from making sound judgments the day he killed Brandstatt, noting teens have diminished capacity to perceive risk, to manage their lives and to make autonomous decisions. Farani was ultimately certified as an adult and is currently serving a 25 years to life sentence at the Utah State Prison after pleading guilty to the murder.

While Butters found the outcome of the Farani case disappointing, he notes the climate has changed since then, with prison reform taking center stage in public policy debates. The Utah State Legislature passed HB348 by Rep. Eric Hutchings, R-Kearns, during the recent session, which has been championed as a major overhaul of the state’s criminal justice system. The new law reduces the time some drug offenders stay in prison by reducing some crimes from a felony to a misdemeanor, while providing a boost to drug and mental health treatment options.

Students who’ve participated in Butters class said the experience has been life-changing. All were provided with access to their own support systems as they delved into graphic details associated with the case.

“Working on this case has given me a completely new perspective on dealing with teens who are in the legal system for extremely violent crimes. It is much more complicated than I ever thought. It’s easy to make a judgment and say ‘just lock ‘em up and throw away the key.’ But it is much more difficult to find an ethical answer that takes into account the immeasurable loss the victim’s family has experienced and the transgression against one of our society’s highest moral statutes, while also providing sanctions in the most appropriate venue for this particular young man,” said student Lujean Marshall.

“I have learned from this case that there are pros and cons to sending this young man to the adult system as opposed to the juvenile system. The ‘right’ decision in this case is entangled in individual rights, debts to society, restorative justice, possibilities of rehabilitation, understanding the developmental level of young teens, and their risk of recidivism.

“This was not just an assignment from a text book for me and my classmates. This was an experience in reality, with real people whose lives will be forever affected by the decision made,” Marshall said.

Student Devin Scallions echoed his classmate’s sentiments.

“This has been the most experiential learning opportunity in my graduate curriculum. Forensic social work opens a new understanding to the client population we will all work with in the future. Working on this case has been eye-opening in understanding the strengths of the client rather than weaknesses that are portrayed by opposing arguments,” said Scallions.

Defense attorney Russell said that student involvement from the University of Utah brought a unique perspective to the defendant’s assessment of whether to stay in the juvenile system or become certified as an adult. He said he will continue to work with the U in the future if the right case presents itself.

Russell said Butters’ class helped the duo prep before Butters’ took the stand in court —an unprecedented request for Russell. Usually, the defense attorney and expert witness do a run-through of expected questions privately.

“To my delight, I found that the questions, lively interactions, and comments of the students not only helped me to better focus my outline and direct examination, but that it also gave me fresh perspectives about both the science and the literature that I so needed to get before the court in an effective way,” said Russell, who graduated from the University of Utah College of Law in 1980.

“To me, this interdisciplinary symbiosis not only helped my client’s cause and better informed the court, but also gave me —a 35-year veteran of trial practice —new and valuable ideas and tools for future litigation.”

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Media Contacts For This Story

professor and director of the Utah Criminal Justice Center, University of Utah College of Social Work
Office Phone: 801-585-3246
 
public relations specialist, College of Social Work
Office Phone: 801-585-9303
 
communications specialist, University Marketing and Communications
Office Phone: 801-581-6773
Cell Phone: 801-608-9888