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Talking Cold: Can police lie to suspects? Who can offer immunity? And how to inmates earn an early release from prison?

Davis County Attorney Troy Rawlings with KSL Podcast's Sheryl Whorsley and Amy Donaldson

SALT LAKE CITY – When South Ogden detective Terry Carpenter was trying to find a way to solve the disappearance of Joyce Yost, he decided to see if his primary suspect’s ex-wife might share what she knows, leaving immunity on the table. 

When she was reluctant, he suggested that she might be able to get immunity from prosecution in exchange for information about what happened to Yost. That eventual immunity deal turned out to be the key to learning what happened to the Ogden mother and grandmother.

In Episode 6 of Talking Cold, the podcast that discusses the issues raised in The Cold Podcast, Davis County Attorney Troy Rawlings discusses immunity deals, when police can lie to suspects and the complexities of deciding when a suspect becomes a witness. He said there are two kinds of immunity deals, and while both are rare, the type of immunity deal used to gain the cooperation of Rhonda Buttars, transactional immunity, is almost never used.

“Transactional immunity is means you’re not going to be prosecuted at all period for your involvement in whatever the underlying crimes are,” Rawlings said. “It’s so rare that the federal system doesn’t even allow it.”


Obtaining immunity 

In Utah, only a prosecutor can approve an immunity deal of either kind. Use immunity is the type of deal more often utilized by prosecutors to secure information and evidence, but that is also used very sparingly, he said.

If police and prosecutors believe a person has critical information about a case, but they’re asserting their constitutional right not to incriminate themselves, prosecutors can offer a “use immunity agreement, which simply means we’re going to sit down and talk to you you’re going to give us the information in a truthful, accurate fashion,” Rawlings said. “And if you do, we will not and cannot use the information that you provide in that context. And in that setting against you. We won’t use what you tell us. And we won’t make derivative use of what you tell us. In other words, we’re not here to bamboozle you.”

Rawlings also said that while police can lie about the evidence in a case, they cannot make any kind of promise or threat about prosecution or punishment.

“Police can lie to a suspect about the facts of a case,” he said, offering an example. “but what they cannot do is lie to them about what a potential plea deal would be, or do something to coerce or get them to cross the line, for example, another simple one, they can’t put a gun to their head and make them confess, I know you did it, we’ve got the evidence, you better confess… that, they cannot do because that crosses the line.”

Rawlings gave a detailed look into how prosecutors use immunity deals and why they are so rare. In the second half of the episode, former Board of Pardons chairman Mike Sibbett discussed how inmates earn early release and what it’s like when someone on the board has paroled commits a new crime.

“It’s gut wrenching, I mean, it’s it’s horrible,” he said. “I was chair and I would see a new crime on TV reported, and I would constantly worry – was that someone that we left out? Is that somebody that that we made a mistake on? So it ages you. I can tell you that.”

Sibbett said the board also had many other situations where people used parole to rebuild their lives and make the most of a second chance. He told the story of a drug dealer who became a successful business owner.

“And I could tell you story after story after story like that of individuals that just needed a wake up call, and a little confidence and a push in the right direction,” Sibbett said. “Those are the stories that make you feel good.”