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Proposed Utah law would let violent crime victims, families seek review of open investigations

FILE - Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, talks at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2016. Crimes victims and their families who believe investigations are languishing may seek a review of the status all the way to the attorney general's off
FILE - Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, talks at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2016. Crimes victims and their families who believe investigations are languishing may seek a review of the status all the way to the attorney general's office under a proposed Utah law.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Crimes victims and their families who believe investigations into their cases are languishing may seek a review of the status all the way to the attorney general's office under a proposed Utah law.

Right now criminal defendants have ample chances to appeal a conviction up to the U.S. Supreme Court, but victims have no redress if they don't get an answer or resolution to their case, said Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy.

"This simply gives them the opportunity to have a fresh look at the case," he said.

The Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Interim Committee approved the bill Wednesday for consideration by the full Legislature next January.

The measure provides that victims or families of victims of violent felony, murder and missing person cases may ask the investigating agency for a review one year after the crime if there has been no progress toward solving it.

If the police department declines, victims may ask the county or district attorney in the area where the crime occurred to look at the case. Finally, victims could go to the state attorney general if the county or district attorney decides to not investigate further.

Agencies would have 30 days to decide whether to review an open investigation and must notify the victim or victim's family within 15 days of making the decision.

"If this process were in place, I don't think any agency is going to flat-out deny it because they know there's going to be the opportunity to officially transfer if they turn them down," Eliason said.

Merely passing the bill, he said, might encourage more collaboration at the beginning of an investigation.

Eliason said the bill is not a criticism of police agencies but is a way to give victims different options when they have not received the "proverbial justice for all."

The Utah Chiefs of Police Association supports the bill.

Val Shupe, association executive director, told the committee that victims' complaints should be heard, but the at same time law enforcement agencies should not be pitted against each other.

In a similar vein, four women who say they were recent victims of sexual assault but county prosecutors declined to pursue their cases asked the Utah Supreme Court on Wednesday to appoint a prosecutor under an obscure state law.

The women are challenging the decision by local prosecutors not to file charges in their cases under a "new state constitutional theory," according to Paul Cassell, a University of Utah law professor and former federal judge.

The Utah Constitution provides a rarely used provision for victims to initiate prosecution when a public prosecutor chooses not to pursue a "well-founded" case, according to Cassell.

While that law deals with the prosecution, Eliason said his proposal is "kind of analogous" on the investigation side.

"This potentially, in rare circumstances, gives victims more voices and more choices," he said.