PROVO — Those who believe they’ve been wrongly convicted in Utah County now have a new way to challenge the marks on their criminal records.
The Utah County Attorney’s Office is inviting people to apply for a fresh review of their cases and lodge any complaints of prosecutorial misconduct with its newly formed conviction integrity unit, the second in the state.
“One of the highest obligations of the government is for the government to acknowledge when the government gets it wrong,” Utah County Attorney David Leavitt said Wednesday in announcing the initiative.
Leavitt, a Republican elected in 2018, campaigned on a platform of reform after several high-profile cases in the county were either dropped or ended in acquittals. The county’s three-member commission considered creating a review board in response to calls for more oversight of county prosecutors, but ultimately backed away from such a move.
“We never made any action to it because it wasn’t ready and we knew that there was some problems with the process,” Utah County Commissioner Bill Lee said Wednesday. “But now, with David’s leadership on this, we find a way that it makes sense, and we can go forward and we can do it in an appropriate way.”
Leavitt has now set up a nine-member panel to review the cases and then make recommendations for him to consider. If he agrees the person is factually innocent or there were procedural errors, he’ll file a motion to have the conviction vacated, but the office isn’t providing monetary damages.
The board will also consider allegations of prosecutorial misconduct that Leavitt will review against his office’s own internal policy and pass on to the Utah State Bar if he believes they rise to the level of ethics violations.
The board is made up mostly of attorneys practicing in different types of law, but also includes a police chief and a Utah Valley University professor.
“I’m looking for broad perspective,” Leavitt said.
The panel includes some in the legal world who have levied criticism against his office in the past, including defense attorney Ann Marie Taliaferro, whose client Conrad Truman was acquitted of murder after he appealed and got a new trial in Provo in 2017.
Taliaferro said the panels, which have become more common throughout the country, are a recognition that the existing paths to appeal or post-conviction relief are rife with procedural hurdles and legal bars that get in the way even when it’s apparent a person is innocent or there were serious problems with evidence.
“That’s why these units are awesome,” she said. “They’re very much needed.”
“One of the highest obligations of the government is for the government to acknowledge when the government gets it wrong.” — Utah County Attorney David Leavitt
The Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office became the first in Utah to create such a board in 2018. The panel made its first decision late last year, upholding the conviction of a man sentenced to prison for sexually abusing a child.
When Leavitt was Juab County attorney about 20 years ago, DNA evidence exonerated two inmates convicted in that county, and the impact has stayed with him.
“I will never forget the turmoil that caused in me, and understanding that the system had in fact accused, and tried to a jury, and convicted two people who were innocent of the crime for which they were charged,” Leavitt said.
He reiterated his belief that prosecutors have too much power in today’s criminal justice system and said the new program will help provide a check to that authority.
The board will elect its own chairperson, and while its meetings won’t be open to the public, it will provide data about those who have applied and whether it’s agreed their convictions should be cleared.
On Wednesday, Leavitt’s office was working on posting the documents online that a person will need to fill out to apply. To be eligible, cases have to have been handled by Leavitt’s office, which prosecutes felonies and class A misdemeanors in the county. Both those who entered a plea and those convicted by a jury can qualify.
The panelists are volunteers, but the county may end up bringing on an outside investigator as part of the reviews, Leavitt said.
The commission’s members are:
- Former U.S. Attorney for Utah Brett Tolman.
- Former 4th District Judge Anthony Schofield.
- Utah Valley University social work professor LaShawn Williams.
- Defense lawyer Ann Marie Taliaferro.
- Tanner Ainge, an attorney and former Utah County Commissioner.
- Saratoga Springs Police Chief Andrew Burton.
- Personal injury and immigration attorney Geidy Achecar.
- Corporate attorney Stirling Adams.
- Commercial litigator Craig Carlile.