6 Million Views

How Karra Porter’s viral client led to a pro bono initiative and a 22-year-old cold case

Published in 2018 Mountain States Super Lawyers — July 2018

You’ve seen the video. 

University of Utah Hospital nurse Alex Wubbels was on call July 26, 2017 when Salt Lake City police detective Jeff Payne asked that he be allowed to draw blood from an unconscious patient. Wubbels explained to Payne that hospital policy permitted blood draws only when an officer had a warrant, the patient was under arrest or the patient had consented.

“I’m just trying to do what I’ve been told to do,” Wubbels said to Payne on the video recording. “ … I don’t know why he’s blaming me.”

“Because she’s the one who told me no,” answered Payne, before forcibly handcuffing a screaming Wubbels, who put a new face on the national conversation about police misconduct: a blond, white, female one.

Wubbels’ lawyer, Karra Porter, thought people should see the arrest video, recorded via police body cam. “We did not immediately release it, because my preference—which Alex shared—was that we try to give the entities involved an opportunity to do the right thing first,” says Porter, a Christensen & Jensen shareholder who practices civil rights and crisis management. 

Instead, she says, she felt stonewalled by the entity that provided hospital security. 

“Salt Lake City [PD] was not the entity we were concerned about,” Porter says. “Internal Affairs had been responsive and was looking into it. But hospital security wasn’t taking it seriously.”

A former journalist, Porter called a press conference prior to the release. “If you call a press conference and answer all the questions at once, then things go more smoothly,” she says. “I also wanted to go through the video and explain what was happening, so that the reporters would be able to convey what they were seeing. I prepared a list of points: ‘Okay, now, this is what’s happening.’ I identified the individuals in the video and then I just let it run. I could actually see people flinch when [Payne] lunged at Alex.”

Porter thought the video would saturate Utah, maybe the surrounding areas. “One of Alex’s main goals was to try to make sure that nurses throughout the region had a chance to see what had happened so that it could be a teaching moment,” Porter says. “We wanted it publicized in the immediate vicinity.”

But it quickly exploded. It’s now reached 6 million views on YouTube alone.

“I knew it was powerful,” Porter says. “The first time I watched it, it made me sick to my stomach, but I thought it was because I had come to know Alex. But it seems everyone had the same reaction.”

Because Wubbels was uninterested in facing years of potential litigation, Porter settled quickly with Salt Lake City and University Hospital for $500,000. Part of that settlement became colloquially known around the halls of Christensen & Jensen as “The Alex Wubbels Project,” a pro bono initiative that helps people gain access to body cam footage.

“In many instances, when [body cam] footage is viewed, it’s favorable to law enforcement,” Porter says. “We’ve had a number of cases where we got the footage and then we’d say, ‘See this right here? This is why the officers thought that he was about to be struck.’”

But the project is not only interested in body cam footage. Porter worked on behalf of parents whose son died in prison and who wanted to know exactly what happened. Just to make the Government Records and Access Management Act request was $600, an unreachable figure for some. But the project helped. “They got the truth they needed.”

Porter is chasing truth for another Utah family, the Tapias, whose 6-year-old daughter was murdered in 1995. The case had been cold for decades, but then the Tapias saw a lawyer on TV aggressively seeking information from the same entity that they had been for years: the Salt Lake City Police Department. 

“They came to me primarily because they weren’t getting information. It had been 22 years,” Porter says. “I thought, ‘Well, this is not really crisis management; It’s not really civil rights. I don’t know if I can help you.’ And they said, ‘Please. If there’s anything you can do.’ They were desperate.” 

So the firm helped form the Utah Cold Case Coalition, which helped get legislation passed in November to create Utah’s first statewide cold case database.

“Now anyone will be able to go through the database and look at cases. Even more important, all law enforcement personnel in the state will be submitting information about missing persons here, and somebody else might submit they found unidentified remains here. And then maybe somebody will say, “Wait a second. That’s the same person,” Porter says. “Right now, you’d have to go jurisdiction by jurisdiction. We were trying to find if there had been any other killings when this little girl was killed. We realized we would have to go to every single little law enforcement website. We’re optimistic that we’re going to bring some closure to this family.”

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