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SALT LAKE CITY — As the leaves changed color and fell last month, Matt Gwyther sat in a park surrounded by the evidence of the passage of time.
“I have this open wound that I just want to close,” he said.
As fall gave way to winter, Matt Gwyther faced another holiday season without her husband, the late Dennis Rowley Gwyther.
“Being with Dennis was the first time I felt like my life was 100% perfect,” Matt Gwyther said.
Her husband has been gone since May 2019. He was shot and killed while driving from Salt Lake City to Idaho on I-84.
Box Elder County prosecutors have charged Jonathan Mendoza Llana, 48, with murder and filed a notice of intent to seek the death penalty.
But Matt Gwyther says the case has slowed due to the uncertainty surrounding Llana’s mental state. Llana was found incompetent to stand trial and ordered to undergo treatment at Utah State Hospital, in an effort to restore his jurisdiction.
Over time, as Matt Gwyther anticipated and attended competency review hearings, usually scheduled six months apart, his understanding of the term “quick justice” changed.
“Swift is a matter of years,” he said, “not a matter of months or weeks.”
This year, three jurisdictional hearings were canceled or continued due to delays in assessment reports. Either the reports had not yet been completed, or they had not been filed with the courts in time for review before the hearings.
While delays are normal in the criminal justice system, Matt Gwyther explained that for victims and their families, a court hearing is not a one-day event.
“You find yourself, sort of the week before the hearing, building, building, for what you’re going to anticipate at this hearing,” he explained. “And then just that it doesn’t happen because someone hasn’t finished their homework, it gets frustrating.”
Staffing is the No. 1 challenge facing Utah State Hospital in Provo, according to Superintendent Dallas Earnshaw.
“They don’t just turn in their homework,” he said of the hospital’s forensic evaluators. “They are constantly doing extra work. And so being late is not a symptom of not caring.”
According to data provided by Earnshaw, while staffing shortages are an issue, the hospital’s workload has simultaneously increased. They have seen a 22% increase in court referrals for mental health assessments since fiscal 2020.
The hospital has had difficulty recruiting, hiring and retaining qualified assessors.
“We are not alone in this,” Earnshaw said. “It’s something that has impacted health care across the country.”
KSL investigators have learned that approximately 33% of initial mental health assessments for courts are submitted late, after a 30-day delay. As Earnshaw noted, “Over 60% of reports meet all timing requirements.”
As for reports on ongoing cases, like Llana’s, Earnshaw said delays are less common. When reports are delayed, it’s often due to the complexity of the case and the evaluators’ desire to be as thorough as possible, he said.
What is the solution ?
“It’s a challenge,” Earnshaw said. “Because, as a community, we have to understand what is happening, why we are in this situation. What caused this great resignation?”
In a case where gun violence and mental health are at the center, Matt Gwyther wants to see change.
“If we’re not going to address the gun issues, that’s fine. Let’s address the mental health issues,” he said. “If you pay someone enough money, they will be ready to work in the public hospital. So, does the hospital not get the funding it needs to hire staff? not ask for funding?
Despite multiple inquiries, officials from the state’s Department of Health and Human Services could not confirm whether a request for additional funding to address staffing issues at the state hospital has been made. forwarded to Utah Governor Spencer Cox.
Earnshaw wrote in an email to KSL-TV, “(Utah State Hospital) is working with state leaders to address labor shortage issues.”
These solutions, he said, include compensation, recruitment and retention strategies.
After months of court delays, Matt Gwyther just wants to see the state invest whatever it takes to properly staff his hospital — for patients and those seeking justice.
“It re-victimizes the family by making us wait even longer,” he said. “We should do better.”
Matt and Dennis Gwyther had been together for almost 10 years. The two said “I do” to each other the first day their marriage became legal in Utah, a Friday in December 2013.
“We were the second or third of the last married couple in the Salt Lake County Clerk’s Office,” Matt Gwyther said, remembering the excitement of that day with a smile.
Those close to Dennis Gwyther describe him as a child in a man’s body, a tech genius, and a beloved pillar of Utah’s LGBTQ community.
“He was always the guy who never wanted fame, but always made it happen,” Matt Gwyther said.
You find yourself, sort of the week before the hearing, planning, planning what you’re going to anticipate at that hearing, and then just so it doesn’t happen because somebody hasn’t finished their homework , it becomes frustrating.
On Thursday, however, he felt one step closer to getting justice for his beloved, Dennis Gwyther. He said he learned that Llana’s defense attorneys would not challenge the hospital’s latest assessment that found Llana fit to stand trial.
However, a skills review hearing scheduled for next week has now been pushed back to January.
“Disappointed with the delay,” he wrote in a text message to KSL-TV on Thursday morning, “but I understand it is a long process to get justice for Dennis. I’m glad the defendant stays out of the street and unable to affect other families.”
Llana’s attorney did not provide a comment on her behalf for this report.
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