How mental health staffing shortages are delaying justice in Utah courts

How mental health staffing shortages are delaying justice in Utah courts

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 gives way to winter, Gwyther faces another holiday season without her husband, Dennis Rowley Gwyther.

“Being with Dennis was the first time I felt like my life was going 100%,” Matt said.

Dennis has been gone since May 2019. He was shot and killed while driving from Salt Lake to Idaho on Interstate 84.

Box Elder County prosecutors have charged Jonathan Mendoza Llana, 48, with murder and filed a notice of intent to seek the death penalty.

Jonathan Mendoza Wool

But Matt says the case has slowed down 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 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, for some, are normal in the criminal justice system, Matt explained that for victims and their families, a court hearing is not a one-day event.

“You find yourself, kind of the week before the hearing, building, building for what you’re going to anticipate at this hearing,” Matt explained, “and then just so that it doesn’t happen because that someone hasn’t finished their homework, it gets frustrating.

Staffing is the number one challenge facing Utah State Hospital in Provo, according to Superintendent Dallas Earnshaw.

Utah State Hospital in Provo. (Photo: Josh Szymanik)

“Not only are they not turning in their homework,” he said of the hospital’s forensic evaluators, “they’re constantly putting in 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 currently 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 need to understand what’s going on, why we’re in this situation. What caused this big quit?

In a case where gun violence and mental health are at the center, Matt wants to see change.

“If we’re not going to fix the gun problems, that’s fine. Let’s address mental health issues,” he said. “If you pay someone enough money, they will agree to work at the public hospital. So is the hospital not getting the funding it needs to hire staff? Didn’t he ask for funding?

Despite multiple inquiries, officials from the state’s Department of Health and Human Services did not confirm to KSL whether a request for additional funding to address staffing issues at the state hospital had passed on to Governor Spencer Cox.

Earnshaw wrote in an email to KSL, “USH 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 wants to see the state invest whatever it takes to properly staff his hospital — both for patients and those seeking justice.

“It re-victimizes the family by making us wait again,” he said. “We should do better.”

Matt and Dennis 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,” he said, recalling the excitement of that day with a smile.

Those close to Dennis 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 said.

On Thursday, Matt felt one step closer to getting justice for Dennis. 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 on Thursday morning, ‘but I understand it’s a long process to get justice for Dennis. I’m glad the defendant is staying off the streets and unable to affect other families.

Llana’s attorney did not provide a comment on her behalf for this report.

Have you experienced something that you think just isn’t right? KSL investigators want to help. Submit your tip to or 385-707-6153 so we can work for you

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