Utah County officials hold off on creating a board that would review complaints of prosecutor misconduct

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah County Attorney Jeff Buhman Utah County Attorney Jeffrey Buhman addresses the media as he explains the Utah County Attorney's Office's ruling in the officer-involved shooting of Darrien Hunt during a press conference at the Utah County Attorney's Office Provo, Monday, November 3, 2014.

Amid pushback from police and prosecutors, Utah County commissioners have decided to hold off — for now — on establishing a panel to review allegations of unethical behavior by prosecutors.

The commission opted to delay their vote to create a prosecutorial review board indefinitely to allow time for more discussion, Commissioner Bill Lee said Tuesday.

The three commissioners have been discussing the possibility since last May, when a group of Utah County residents asked them to create a body outside the county attorney’s office to provide oversight to prosecutors. The group pointed to a handful of high-profile criminal prosecutions that ended in acquittals or dismissed charges in recent years, saying the prosecutions purportedly damaged the lives of people who say they were falsely accused of crimes.

In the past two weeks, Utah County police and prosecutors have been outspoken during county commission meetings about their opposition to any review board. They say there is already enough oversight in place for prosecutors, and expressed concern that creating a review board would cause prosecutors to decline filing charges if they are worried that their actions will be questioned.

“If this passes, I would be negligent if I went back to my prosecutors and said, ‘Everything is the same, business as usual,’ ” Tim Taylor, chief deputy for the Utah County Attorney’s Office, told commissioners on Tuesday. “Because it won’t be.”

Taylor said if the review board is created, he will likely tell prosecutors in his office to only file cases when a defendant has confessed or there is “profound” physical evidence connecting the accused to a crime. Some serious cases — especially “he-said, she-said” sex abuse cases — may never be filed.

“In the end, this is going to hurt the victims,” Utah County Sheriff’s Sgt. Jason Randall said during Tuesday’s commission meeting. “And it’s going to result in fewer prosecutions.”

When commissioners began considering the measure, it appeared that all three supported some sort of prosecutor review board. On Tuesday, Commissioner Greg Graves said he was “ashamed” that he ever supported it, and he said commissioners should instead be applauding those prosecutors and law enforcers who work for the county.

“I did start out supportive, until I learned all about it,” Graves said Tuesday, adding that he would be in favor of an internal review process if county attorney Jeff Buhman wanted to implement it.

The proposed prosecutorial review board that the commission is considering would be a seven-member body tasked with reviewing allegations of wrongful prosecution, civil rights violations and prosecutorial misconduct within Utah County. The group would “identify any truthfulness” to the allegations and make a finding on whether there was misconduct.

The board would not have the power to sanction prosecutors or award financial damages.

Utah County Attorney Jeff Buhman on Tuesday expressed concern that the board would be unconstitutional, and said the current proposal was a “direct attack” on the prosecutors in his office. He added he has never seen a case in Utah County overturned for misconduct.

“Where is this misconduct?” Buhman asked. “It doesn’t exist. Mistakes? Sure. Misconduct? No.”

Commissioner Bill Lee said Tuesday evening that while creating the prosecutor review committee has been tabled for now, discussions will continue and some sort of oversight will be implemented in Utah County.

“I don’t know what it will look like,” he said, “but I feel confident there will be something that comes out of this.”

There are no prosecutorial review committees currently in Utah. Nationwide, a number of district attorneys’ offices have adopted Conviction Integrity Units — internal review boards that look over past cases to identify unjust convictions.

Utah County’s proposed board is different because it would function outside the county attorney’s office and can consider cases that did not result in a conviction. Lee said in August that he was not aware of any other committee in the nation created by an outside governing agency that reviews prosecutor actions.

Former Provo City Councilman Steve Turley — whom Utah County prosecutors charged with nearly a dozen fraud felonies in 2011 — told commissioners he was in support of “any improvement” to the current process. In his case, a judge ultimately dismissed almost every charge either for lack of probable cause or because the statute of limitations had passed. A final charge was dismissed at request of prosecutors.

“I’m a victim of a process that ran amok,” Turley said. “… My hope is this thing gets the legs to get started. It’s an opportunity to make things better when people won’t do it themselves.”

Turley filed a lawsuit in 2017 alleging malicious prosecution. It is one of two pending lawsuits against Utah County that were cited by citizens to show the need for a review board.

The other lawsuit was filed last July by Conrad Truman, who was acquitted of killing his wife during a second murder trial. He alleges Utah County prosecutors and Orem police used “misleading, false and outright fabricated” evidence to charge him with murder and keep him behind bars for nearly four years.