Story by MARK SHENEFELT • Standard-Examiner Staff
FARMINGTON — They found Dominic Landreth wandering around a Layton business parking lot, incoherent and smelling of marijuana.
It was the beginning of the end for the 19-year-old. He was booked into the Davis County Jail that morning of April 19, 2016, and did not leave alive.
Kristen Landreth says her son was a free spirit who suffered from depression and felt frustrated with himself for not yet having found a productive path in life.
In the end, he failed to comply with the escalating demands of the criminal justice system and on Aug. 22, 2016, became a statistic, a reported suicide in the jail.
Story continues below video.
His death was one of 23 in Utah jails in 2016, at least a 17-year high.
Utah’s Justice Reinvestment Initiative, passed in 2015, has been promoted by state officials as a way to cut prison and jail crowding by reducing penalties and incarceration times for nonviolent offenders.
The program emphasizes steering defendants to substance abuse and mental health treatment, in some cases in lieu of time behind bars. It stresses closer probation services and follow-up to help certain offenders improve themselves and stay out of jail.
Kristen Landreth says Dominic’s case could have been an example of the justice system helping a nonviolent young man get on the right track. But she says the opposite happened and expressed bitterness toward the judge, the prosecutor, the public defender and the jail.
“I understand when somebody breaks a law that's what jail is,” she said in a recent interview. “But with the amount of people with mental issues and or drug issues, it's not helping anything to lock them up. It doesn’t make them stop doing what they're doing. They need the help and I just feel like they didn't help my son.”
Dominic Landreth’s introduction to the adult court system came July 21, 2015, after he was arrested in Clearfield by police responding to a noise complaint.
Davis County prosecutors ended up filing a third-degree felony drug possession charge, which was reduced to a misdemeanor in a plea bargain. The case predated passage of the JRI, which called for initial misdemeanor charges, not felonies, in such cases.
Second District Judge John R. Morris in Farmington gave Landreth a year in jail, with the sentence suspended, and probation.
Landreth’s 2016 arrest in Layton triggered a parole violation from the 2015 conviction. He appeared before Morris on June 13, 2016, for sentencing on both matters.
PRESENCE OF EVIL
Kristen Landreth said she was stunned when Morris “threw the book” at her son.
Morris sentenced Dominic Landreth to 45 days of straight jail time on the probation violation and 75 more in the Layton case. He ordered the sentences be served end to end, not concurrently, and he gave no credit for good behavior.
Public defender Ronald Fujino told Morris, according to an audio recording of the sentencing, that Landreth already completed 80 hours of community service as ordered, had a full-time job lined up and a stable place to live with his parents.
The teen asked to address the judge.
Listen to Landreth's sentencing below.
“I know I kind of screwed up,” Landreth told Morris. “But I did buck up for a good seven months (on probation) before falling back into the same presence of evil (drug use).”
He said being in jail for 50 days broke him down.
“... I’m ready to ask for a second chance, and I’m going to take the means by following a recovery plan.”
“He was happy without walls, I guess,” his mother said in the interview. “In a jail setting it was just too much for him.”
Prosecutor Jason Nelson cited Landreth’s “significant juvenile (court) history that escalated over a period of time, and this is the second time he has been picked up on a serious drug offense.”
Nelson and Morris both questioned Landreth’s sincerity in his pleading for probation rather than jail time.
“I don’t know that the thinking has changed so much as he’s learning to think what the judge wants to hear,” Nelson said.
Added Morris, “He still denies that he has any significant problem.”
Nelson and Morris said Landreth’s potential for diversion into a drug court program as a provision of probation was colored by his spotty performance on probation to date.
“I know you’re saying I’m trying to manipulate the courts …,” Landreth said.
“I’m not debating this with you,” Morris said.
“Yeah, I did partake in drugs but now I get to go find a family to be my high,” Landreth told Morris.
“I’m just telling you, Mr. Landreth, you’re standing in front of me and I’m seeing your mouth moving but I’m not hearing anything substantive coming out of it. I don’t believe you have a desire to change your ways. I don’t think you have a desire to do anything but get out of jail at this stage.”
The judge said he attributed Landreth’s mindset to “immaturity.”
“And if you’re not willing to grapple with that and try to change and learn and improve and learn the skills you need to actually have a normal life, that’s your decision.”
Kristen Landreth was in the courtroom. She said she didn’t understand what had happened. She went up to the public defender, who didn’t have time to talk to her, she said. Concern about his history of depression was not addressed, she said.
“I just felt like it starts there — it starts with our public defender system, that they meet these people for less than five minutes and try to represent them,” she said. “I don't think it's fair, because if somebody doesn't have any money ... My son didn't have anything.”
DIFFERENT COUNTY, DIFFERENT STANDARDS
She complained about inconsistencies in levels of punishment between judges and counties. Investigators she has consulted “indicated when they looked at his case that he wouldn't have spent a day in jail if he would have been in Salt Lake County.”
In Salt Lake County, where beds are at a premium because of a large caseload, jail time for drug possession may be rare, but each case is different, said District Attorney Sim Gill.
Judges in smaller counties “may reach a bit more aggressively” for jail time, Gill said.
“In Salt Lake County we have a large, collaborative infrastructure of therapeutic care and we are far more aggressive to look for those kind of alternatives,” Gill said.
“It’s no secret they’re not putting misdemeanants in jail there,” Weber County Attorney Chris Allred said of Salt Lake County. “We do not necessarily have those same concerns. Whatever we’re doing is probably more the norm. In Salt Lake they became so overwhelmed with a lack of jail beds.”
Davis County Attorney Troy Rawlings said, “Our prosecutors seek justice on each case, and sometimes that means recommending probation and treatment and therapy and community service and no jail time. Other times the … prosecutor will view that jail or prison is the appropriate recommendation.”
There are no “lines in the sand and each case is different,” Rawlings said.
Rawlings had no comment on the Landreth case. He said his office wasn’t even aware the man had died until a reporter asked about it. He said the sheriff’s office sometimes does not even notify the county attorney’s office of in-custody deaths, let alone the public. There is no state law that requires jails to report in-custody deaths.
STILL UNDER INVESTIGATION
About 70 days into the 120-day sentence, Landreth was found hanging in a jail shower stall at 5:55 p.m. Aug. 22. A guard doing rounds noticed Landreth, who had turned 20 in July, was not in his cell.
A copy of his death certificate provided by his parents lists suicide as the cause of death. Sheriff’s reports obtained in a public records request are heavily redacted and do not list a cause of death.
One guard reported that less than an hour before Landreth was found hanged, he “observed Landreth with a brown towel over his head looking over the railing on the top tier. He was like that for approximately 10 minutes.”
The guard said he reported the unusual behavior to a supervisor. The reports are silent about whether the supervisor did anything about it.
After the hanging, an inmate told a sheriff’s investigator “another inmate was controlling Landreth. He said Landreth gave his (meal) trays for drugs every day.”
The Unified Police Department is doing an independent investigation of Landreth’s death. Spokeswoman Nicki Dokos said investigators are awaiting toxicology test results.
Kristen Landreth said she and her husband, Michael, received three false alarms about Dominic’s expected release date from the jail, which further depressed her son.
“We planned a big barbecue with family and friends, then they told him they messed up again and pushed the date back again,” she said.
The Davis County Sheriff’s Office did not respond to a question about the jail’s procedures for setting release dates and notifying inmates or family members.
Kristen Landreth said she was saddened to learn Dominic’s death was not so unusual in local jails.
“This isn't right,” she said. “They should be protecting them from other people and protecting them from themselves, like I would have if he would have been home.”
She added, “One time is too many to not make changes, and it continues to happen.”
A common response from jail officials that an inmate who is determined to die can’t be stopped “is not true if you're paying attention,” she said. “If you take away their opportunity, and if all of these people that are harming themselves are doing it in the same way, maybe it's time to start there.”
You can reach reporter Mark Shenefelt at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter at @mshenefelt and Facebook at www.facebook.com/SEmarkshenefelt.