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Utah County Attorney reflects on time in Ukraine amid strife

By Genelle Pugmire - | Mar 5, 2022

Courtesy David Leavitt

David and Chelom Leavitt with their children and a friend, far right back row, in Ukraine.

While Utah County Attorney David Leavitt is having domestic disputes with former and current prosecutors in his office, the ongoing international war between Ukraine and Russia is on his mind.

Leavitt and his wife Chelom Leavitt, also an attorney, have spent a good portion of their legal careers in Ukraine.

After working 14 years in law here in the U.S., Leavitt said he was burned out of the criminal system, that he had “lost the flame.”

He had always wanted to have an overseas living experience, so the couple volunteered with the American Bar Association to work with the Ukrainian Supreme Court.

Ukraine declared independence in 1991, but never truly was able to break away from Russia. In 2003, Viktor Yushchenko won the Ukrainian presidency against Viktor Yanukovych in a runoff election. The runoff was held because the Ukrainian Supreme Court determined there was widespread election fraud by Yanukovych. Yushchenko won 52% to 44%.

Courtesy David Leavitt

David Leavitt teaching students in Ukraine.

Soon after, Yushchenko was poisoned with dioxin — a contaminant in Agent Orange. The poison disfigured him, but he has since made a full recovery.

According to Leavitt, Yushchenko went into the major square in Kyiv and vowed he would not leave that spot until the influence of Communism was gone.

Two million Ukrainians joined him in Kyiv and thousands more around the whole county rose up together.It was called the Orange Revolution and Leavitt’s office looked over the square.

“The Orange Revolution changed the Ukrainian Society,” Leavitt said. But he realized that it was the younger generations that needed to be taught about democracy and law if anything were to really change.

Leavitt was told to leave the country to avoid the Orange Revolution and what came next. Just like that, Leavitt took his family of then-six children and boarded a train for Prague in the Czech Republic.

Courtesy David Leavitt

Chelom and David Leavitt, from left, with former Ukranian President Yushchenko and his wife Kateryna in 2021.

“We were like refugees fleeing to avoid violence from the Orange Revolution,” Leavitt said.

They had a choice, they could come back to the U.S. or go back to Ukraine and work with the students fighting for freedom.

They chose to return to Ukraine.

The couple left their volunteer positions and started the Leavitt Institute for International Development and began teaching the values of jury trials, as they work in a democratic system, as well as other principles.

“We recruited judges and lawyers from the U.S. and Canada to come help,” Leavitt said. “Jury trials were very foreign to them.”

Courtesy David Leavitt

David Leavitt in Ukraine during the Orange Revolution. The photo was dated Nov. 22, 2004.

The Ukrainians also struggled with the concept of plea bargains.

“I taught in 36 universities in Ukraine and Moldova,” Leavitt said. “I learned that to change a country you must teach the rising generation.”

Over more than a decade, the Leavitt Institute taught 3,500 students with 300 American and Canadian lawyers and judges donating over 30,000 hours of time.

“There is no question these kids got it,” Leavitt said. “They accepted and loved the most fundamental concepts of a free government.”

His students, in turn, were teaching grade-school children the principles of fundamental democracy and the importance of jury trials. He added that it is not just about talking about freedoms, it’s about sacrifice for them.

Over their time in Ukraine the Chelom and David became close friends with Yushchenko and his wife, Kateryna. They even visited the Leavitt family in Utah County.

“Ukraine is our second home,” Leavitt said.

While the Russians continue to bomb cities throughout Ukraine, Leavitt said he knows the solidarity of Ukraine and its people. He only wishes that countries who are coming out in support of their sovereignty would have been more observant and stood with them years ago.

“If only we would have awakened 10 years ago, this wouldn’t be happening,” Leavitt said of the current situation.

Leavitt said it was deeply rewarding to see all the progress and growth toward democracy in Ukraine up close.

“It is also disheartening to see it destroyed in one week,” Leavitt added. “I have friends in Poland, on the front lines and in bomb shelters.”

Leavitt is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and noted that the members are faithful people taking care of each other.

“They realize they could be facing their mortal extinction,” Leavitt said.

He added that they are just like most Ukrainians, they stand with each other and help each other — they are united.

Back in the states, Leavitt has concerns that his teachings aren’t quite as valid anymore, particularly around the lack of jury trials.

In fact, Leavitt noted that 47 of the 50 states did away with jury trials during COVID and he is not sure how many will bring them back.

While the Ukrainians are on the ground floor of a new nation conceived in liberty and freedom, Leavitt believes U.S. citizens are throwing their fundamental freedoms away.

Leavitt said it was the Ukrainians, their faith and enthusiasm in democracy, law and freedom that pushed him to come back to the United States and see what he could do to help a criminal justice system that almost always leads to plea bargains, rather than judgment from a jury of peers.

Leavitt noted that is why people don’t like him, including those associates who were recently vocal against him. Six current and former prosecutors in the Utah County Attorney’s Office sent a declaration of no confidence in Leavitt to KUTV. He feels he was elected to make a change, and some people aren’t open to those changes.

For now, Leavitt holds hope for his friends in Eastern Europe, but knows that this war could be the start of more to come.

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