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Salt Lake D.A. creates panel to review claims of innocence

SALT LAKE CITY — The Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office on Monday announced the formation of a panel that will review whether a person convicted of a felony is actually innocent.

The Conviction Review Unit, also known as the Conviction Integrity Unit, will look at claims of "actual innocence" by those who believe they were wrongly convicted of a felony by the Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office and have exhausted all possible appeals.

District Attorney Sim Gill announces the formation of a Conviction Integrity Unit at Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office in Salt Lake City on Monday, Oct. 8, 2018.
District Attorney Sim Gill announces the formation of a Conviction Integrity Unit at Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office in Salt Lake City on Monday, Oct. 8, 2018.
Qiling Wang, Deseret News

"Should some error have lead to that wrongful conviction, it is so important that we actually have a methodology and a process by which to be able to review that. And that's what we really are creating," said District Attorney Sim Gill. "It is a committment to being open and transparent."

Gill said the new advisory board, which has been three years in the making, will "encourage a culture of transparency in our criminal justice system" and make his prosecutors better by uncovering any errors that might be found in the way they handle cases.

The board will consist of five longtime public figures in the community and criminal justice system: former Utah Supreme Court Chief Justice Christine Durham; former 3rd District Judge Judith Atherton; former longtime Salt Lake County deputy district attorney Robert Stott; defense attorney Gil Athay; and the Reverend France Davis.

"The system depends upon the information and availability of evidence. And it depends on the judgment of decision makers, and all decision makers are human and susceptible to mistakes, there's no question about that. We strive mightily, and particularly judges strive mightily, to avoid mistakes," Durham said.

District Attorney Sim, left, shakes hands with Rev. France A. Davis after the press conference about the formation of a Conviction Integrity Unit at Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office in Salt Lake City on Monday, Oct. 8, 2018.
District Attorney Sim, left, shakes hands with Rev. France A. Davis after the press conference about the formation of a Conviction Integrity Unit at Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office in Salt Lake City on Monday, Oct. 8, 2018.
Qiling Wang, Deseret News

In order for a case to be reviewed by the panel, a person applying must be living, and the reason for review "must be based on credible and verifiable evidence of innocence, or new technologies that exist to test or retest remaining relevant evidence," according to Gill's office.

The applicant "must agree to fully cooperate with the (panel), which includes waiving all procedural safeguards and privileges, as well as agreeing to provide full disclosure regarding all inquiry requirements," the district attorney's office further states.

Former Justice Christine Durham talk about the formation of a Conviction Integrity Unit at Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office in Salt Lake City on Monday, Oct. 8, 2018.
Former Justice Christine Durham talk about the formation of a Conviction Integrity Unit at Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office in Salt Lake City on Monday, Oct. 8, 2018.
Qiling Wang, Deseret News

If the panel concludes that a person is innocent, and if the district attorney's office agrees with the panel's findings, then the district attorney can ask the court to vacate a conviction or forward the new information to Utah Board of Pardons and Parole if a person is still serving a prison sentence.

Members of the new panel will have independence to conduct their investigations and interview people as they see fit, Gill said. Once they are done reviewing a case, all of their reports will be made public.

Gill said it's hard to say how many applications the panel will receive for potential review, but he hinted of at least one possibly in the works already, he said while declining to go into detail. While there are similar review panels in other states. Salt Lake County's Conviction Review Unit will be the first of its kind in Utah.

The announcement comes less than a month before Election Day, when Gill will go up against opponent Nathan Evershed in his bid for re-election. Evershed works as a prosecutor in Gill's office.

On Monday, Evershed said the district attorney's office considered creating a similar panel "years ago."

"We could have been addressing issues and people that had concerns years ago. But here we are, four weeks outside of an election. The timing is not only suspect to me but to many people," Evershed said.

Evershed said he will keep the panel if he is elected.

Contributing: Peter Samore