The means by which prosecutors get a conviction in court are just as important, if not more so than the end result, Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill said Tuesday.
"Due process is a fundamental right of our criminal justice system," Gill said.
That's why on Tuesday he announced his office had filed motions seeking to vacate the convictions of two people, based on the findings of the district attorney's Conviction Integrity Panel.
"When we fail to follow our own rules, then the legitimacy of our outcomes are themselves without merit," he said. "Put another way, the means by which we convict people, hold them accountable, the process we employ, is just as, if not more important, than the ends that we desire. When we don't follow the rules and we make mistakes, then we have an ethical, legal and moral duty to correct that."
The Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Conviction Integrity Panel is made up of five veteran legal experts in Utah, including former judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys.
In February, a federal public defender contacted Gill's office concerning two of his clients who were convicted of crimes in 3rd District Court in 2010 and 2011. One was convicted of drug distribution, a second-degree felony. The other on a charge of sexual battery, a class A misdemeanor. Both defendants were subsequently deported following their convictions — one to Honduras and the other to Mexico.
But the integrity panel found that "procedural errors" were made in both cases, according to Gill. Both defendants were actually 17 at the time of the alleged crimes, and their charges should have been filed in juvenile court rather than district court where the penalties can be heavier. The panel made no findings as to the merits of the allegations themselves in each of those cases.
While some may feel the two defendants are having their cases thrown out on "technicalities," Gill said the rules of due process must be followed to maintain integrity in the entire system.
"This was a juvenile. He was in the wrong jurisdiction. You can't confer that jurisdiction from a juvenile court to the adult court," he said. "If we're going to say there is integrity in our process, then we need to be able to own and accept our mistakes.
"Violation of due process rights cannot ever be a technical violation. The fact that we hold ourselves to that standard even when it's not flattering or in our immediate self-interest is what lends it credibility, legitimacy and integrity."
Gill doesn’t know how each mistake was made, as the filings were from a previous administration, but noted it appeared both were accidents. His goal moving forward is for his office to learn from those mistakes.
"My goal and hope is we will not make intentional errors. We will not make errors of laziness. We will not make errors of expediency. And we will not make errors that are intentional," he said.
In the case involving the sexual battery, Gill said his office did have the option of refiling the case. However, prosecutors contacted the alleged victim who told them she had no interest in pursuing the case again and that she was fine with the vacated conviction.