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High court says clean slate possible for convicted rapist

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Editor’s note: After years of court battles, the case against a 17-year-old Mountain View High student convicted of attempting to rape a 15-year-old classmate in 1997 was expunged in court and police records.

A recent Supreme Court decision that allowed a 28-year-old man — convicted as a juvenile — to have an attempted rape conviction expunged from his record has prosecutors worried about the ripple effects.

The man was 17 when police arrested him for sexually assaulting a 15-year-old Mountain View High School friend in his car in Orem in 1997. He said it was consensual, she said it was rape.

The juvenile court ruled his crimes of aggravated sexual assault and forcible sodomy were violent enough that he should stand trial as an adult.

A 4th District jury later found him guilty of attempted rape, not aggravated sexual assault or forcible sodomy. He was sentenced to one year in jail and three years of probation.

However, he continued to argue it was the ineffectiveness of his attorney, Michael Esplin, that put him in adult court with its harsher punishments and the inability to expunge his record.

Utah Code prevents expungement of first-degree felonies or registerable sex offenses.

So the man filed a post-conviction appeal — essentially suing the state for what he saw as a gross injustice during his case — and the Supreme Court just agreed with him.

"(The man) claims that if he had received effective assistance of counsel at the (juvenile) retention hearing, he would have been retained in juvenile court," according to the ruling issued by the Supreme Court. "Regardless of the disposition of his case there, his sentence would have been less severe."

Currently post-conviction appeals are limited to adults, according to the state prosecutor's interpretation of Utah's Post-Conviction Remedies Act, said assistant Utah attorney general Erin Riley. His case was the first post-conviction appeal from a convicted juvenile, Riley said.

"One of my main concerns is that the court has appeared to attempt to find a remedy for this individual case, but the remedy they've provided might open up all kinds of problems and difficulties in all kinds of other cases," Riley said. "Juvenile court wasn't set up to give you a break if you committed a crime when you were young. It was set up to help someone who was young, while they were young. Once you've aged out of that, it creates a whole huge problem because if you're complaining about your (case), you're too old to ever go back. Then what is the appropriate remedy?"

But the Utah Supreme Court was clear that post-conviction relief is not just for adults.

"If this were the case, an entire class of convicted juvenile criminals would be excluded from relief simply because legal proceedings take time, and the petitioners have aged out of the juvenile court system in the interim," according to the ruling.

While glad of the ruling for his former client's sake, Esplin said he still disagrees with the decision to keep the case in district court after the jury acquitted the 17-year-old of aggravated sexual assault and forcible sodomy — the charges the juvenile judge had sent him over on.

Had prosecutors filed a charge of attempted rape or even rape in juvenile court, it wouldn't have been a sufficient reason to transfer the case to district court, Esplin said.

To right the perceived injustice, the high court said the man's record can be "expungeable."

The man's current attorney, Mike Petro, said his client is very happy with the outcome, which will enable him to get a job and move on with his life.

The acknowledgement that juveniles have a right to file for post-conviction relief is significant, Petro said, but not the only outcome of the ruling.

"I think what will happen is that (attorneys) are going to pay a lot more attention to the retention hearing (in juvenile court), mount more of a defense," he said. "That is why the Supreme Court granted the relief he requested, because they didn't feel like a significant enough hearing had been presented."

After a retention hearing, a juvenile court judge determines probable cause. Then the burden shifts to the juvenile to present evidence about why the case should stay in juvenile court.

State prosecutors put on medical experts who testified about the girl's injuries and Esplin cross-examined them; however, he didn't call any experts of his own except for the defendant.

He testified he didn't use force or threats on the girl, trying to show the crime hadn't been committed in a "violent, aggressive, or premeditated manner," another reason to move the case out of juvenile court.