The Utah County Commission on Tuesday took the first steps toward establishing a panel that will ensure its prosecutors are behaving ethically.
The commissioners approved a resolution to establish a prosecutorial review committee by year’s end.
It’s the first of its kind in Utah — and possibly the nation.
After a string of high-profile criminal prosecutions ended in acquittals or dismissed charges, a group of Utah County residents in May asked county commissioners to form a committee that would provide oversight of the county attorney’s office.
The group proposed a body outside the attorney’s office that would hear cases of prosecutorial misconduct or wrongful prosecution in Utah County, investigate allegations and then make recommendations about an appropriate remedy.
But Commissioner Bill Lee said in a Tuesday interview that it’s not yet been decided whether he and his fellow commissioners will adopt that idea of an oversight commission or something different.
“We want to do it deliberately,” he said. “We want to do it so it actually becomes something of meaning.”
Lee said Tuesday’s vote was intended to give a time frame after he felt discussions “were stalling.”
The commissioner said creating the committee will help build public trust. He added that prosecutors have “a very special role in our legal system” and should be concerned with justice and not just winning cases.
“There is quite a bit of mistrust that goes on with law enforcement,” he said. “Anything we can do to review and build that trust and keep trust is important.”
Prosecutors in the attorney’s office initially said they opposed the idea of creating an oversight body, saying it was unnecessary. But Utah County Attorney Jeff Buhman said Tuesday he had been working with county officials on what the committee might look like, though he declined to give any details about what he’s proposed. He said more details would be released in a few weeks.
There are no prosecutorial oversight committees currently in Utah. Nationwide, nearly 30 district attorney’s offices have adopted Conviction Integrity Units — internal review boards that look over past cases to identify unjust convictions.
But Lee said he’s not aware of any other committee in the nation created by an outside governing agency to oversee prosecutor duties.
“That’s why we want to be careful,” he said. “Because we, as a commission, do not want to impede or overstep what should be done when it comes to justice.”
National organizations, such as the Center for Prosecutor Integrity and the Innocence Project, have voiced their support for the creation of an oversight committee in letters sent to Utah County commissioners. Libertas Institute President Connor Boyack, who urged officials to create the committee in previous commission meetings, said Tuesday’s vote showed a public commitment from county officials.
“We’ve been talking to commissioners behind the scenes, and today’s step is actually a great one,” he said. “... It’s not a surprise to suggest that the county attorney’s office is not in love with this idea, so putting a timeline on it kind of makes all the parties come together and bring their proposals and suggestions to refine and get something that can be enacted.”
Boyack told commissioners at a June meeting that, for his organization, it wasn’t anything personal against Utah County prosecutors — he’d like to see an oversight committee replicated in other counties across the state.
At previous commission meetings, the grass-roots group shared stories of well-known cases pursued by the Utah County attorney’s office that purportedly damaged the lives of people who say they were falsely accused of crimes.
Those cases included the recent acquittal of Conrad Truman, who was accused of killing his wife but was found not guilty after a second trial was ordered when it was discovered that jurors in the first trial had relied on incorrect measurements when rendering their verdict.
There was also mention of the case of Pamela and Roger Mortensen, who prosecutors charged in 2009 with murdering Roger’s father, Kay Mortensen, after presenting evidence during a secret grand jury proceeding. It was actually two other men who had killed the retired professor to steal his cache of guns — but the Mortensens spent four months in jail before the ex-wife of the actual killer came forward with information.
Former Provo City Councilman Steve Turley — whom Utah County prosecutors charged with nearly a dozen fraud felonies, which a judge ultimately dismissed — also told commissioners of the damage to his reputation and other losses he suffered after being accused.
Both Turley and Truman have pending lawsuits alleging malicious prosecution.