ST. GEORGE – Delays in handing over evidence and alleged misconduct on the part of the prosecution were two issues that arose during a pretrial hearing Wednesday for former Dixie State University theater professor Varlo Davenport, who was fired amidst controversy over a classroom teaching exercise.
Varlo Davenport was terminated from his 15-year tenured position at DSU in December 2014 after a student alleged he assaulted her during an acting exercise in class.
A DSU faculty board cleared Varlo Davenport of wrongdoing in January 2015 and recommended his reinstatement; current and former students held rallies, launched a petition and held a benefit show for the professor and his family.
Instead of being reinstated, Varlo Davenport was charged with a Class B misdemeanor, and the matter is scheduled for a two-day jury trial March 23-24.
At a pretrial hearing Wednesday, Varlo Davenport’s attorney Aaron Prisbrey finally received a response to a request for additional documents from the prosecution.
The request for documents was submitted in August 2015, but Prisbrey didn’t receive an answer until St. George City Attorney Robert Cosson, who is handling the case for the city, handed the order to Prisbrey as he entered the courtroom Wednesday.
Prisbrey was not happy with the timing or the contents of the city’s response and asked Judge Ronald Read to postpone the trial to give the defense time to analyze the new material and properly prepare for trial.
Read denied Prisbrey’s repeated requests for a continuance, stating that if Prisbrey saw the new material and decided he still needed more time, he could then file a motion requesting a later trial date.
Even with the newly received materials, Prisbrey said he will still not get all of the existing evidence called for in his discovery request and needed to mount a proper defense.
DSU Public Safety Director Don Reid has a file box full of information pertaining to the case, Prisbrey said, that the defense still has not been given access to.
“So we subpoenaed that information because if he had a box of information as part of his investigation,” Prisbrey said, “the defendant in a criminal matter has a right to have that.”
Some of the requested information came from a DSU whistleblower hotline, Prisbrey said, which anyone can use to give information without any repercussions.
“What we suspect happened is that information came into the … hotline that was false, it was very inflammatory. There was a tweet sent out … that contains the nature of the false allegation,” Prisbrey said. “And so it was based upon that, that Dixie College (University) took the action that they took.”
“And what the order says is, we can have anything from the whistleblower hotline that has to do with this case, and we can have copies of any interviews regarding this case.”
Other documentation not included in the judge’s order includes some emails, letters and correspondence pertaining to litigation.
“What we’re not going to see, and what the judge has ordered we can’t see, is information as to what it is that (DSU President Richard “Biff”) Williams and Don Reid did behind the scenes to push to have a criminal prosecution brought,” Prisbrey said.
During the hearing, Prisbrey said, Cosson again offered Varlo Davenport a plea in abeyance, which he turned down.
“Mr. Davenport’s indicated that there was no need to respond,” Prisbrey said.
“If someone has an assault conviction, they’re not going to hire them to teach,” Varlo Davenport said.
Varlo Davenport said he and his family just want their life back.
“My wife and I, you know … we’d like to get on with our lives,” Varlo Davenport said. “I really can’t do anything with this assault charge over me.”
“If you’d asked, ‘What do I want out of this?,'” Varlo Davenport said, “I’d like my reputation back.”
During the hearing, Prisbrey told the judge there have been issues with inappropriate contact between the City Attorney’s Office, a city council member and the Davenport family. Read told Prisbrey to file an affidavit and motion in regards to that issue.
Andrea Davenport, Varlo Davenport’s wife, said after the hearing that St. George City Councilwoman Michele Randall called her a couple of days after charges were filed.
“Michelle Randall called me when the charges were brought against Varlo back in March,” Andrea Davenport said. “She called me like the day after and she said ‘I talked to (St. George City Attorney Shawn) Guzman and he said that Varlo should not – she asked if we were using Aaron (Prisbrey) – that she heard we were – and that we should not use Aaron because he has a problem with the city but that we should use Doug Terry or a public defender.”
“And she said Varlo should plead out, and they would make it all go away,” Andrea Davenport said.
Andrea Davenport said Randall told her she was calling as a friend; but, while the two were neighbors, they hadn’t spoken in years, she said.
“We’re not friends, you know? I haven’t heard from her since either,” Andrea Davenport said, “so it’s not like she really cares what’s happening to us.”
Randall said she had called Andrea Davenport, but there was nothing “sinister” about the conversation.
“I did call Andrea,” Randall said. “We have been neighbors for about 15 years, I called her as a neighbor, (I) did not call her as a city council (representative).”
Randall said she had great empathy for what the Davenports were going through because she had gone through a similar experience.
“We had lost our business at one point and I knew what it was like to just lose your livelihood,” Randall said, “and (I) told her how horribly sorry I was and how awful it was.
“She was talking about a civil lawsuit against the university. I gave her two names of a couple of attorneys in Salt Lake City that I said I thought would be really good to contact if they went that route.
At that point, Randall said, she understood that the Davenports had met with Prisbrey but had not hired him yet.
Randall said she told Andrea Davenport that if she was in her position, she would hire a criminal defense attorney, and she did not think Prisbrey practiced criminal defense.
“We had a mutual friend that had used Doug Terry for a criminal problem. I asked her to call that friend and talk to her about him, and that was basically the extent of the conversation,” Randall said.
“I was not calling her as ‘Michele Randall, council person,’ it was ‘Michele Randall your neighbor for 15 years,'” Randall said.
The allegations against Davenport were first investigated by the Washington County Attorney’s Office.
“We didn’t feel like it rose to the level of an offense we had jurisdiction over,” County Attorney Brock Belnap said. “So that’s why it was referred to St. George City.”
The County Attorney’s office typically prosecutes Class A misdemeanors and more serious felony charges, Belnap said. His office did not look at the merits of the case, Belnap said.
“We didn’t make a decision as to whether charges should be filed or not,” Belnap said.
St. George City Attorney Shawn Guzman said he cannot comment on any ongoing criminal matters.
“We will let the case take its normal course through the courts,” Guzman said.
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