Salt Lake County launches a conviction integrity unit to review the cases of people who say they are innocent

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sim Gill, Salt Lake County District Attorney, talks about the new Salt Lake County District Attorney building in Salt Lake City, Friday, March 9, 2018.

Following a national trend in district attorney offices, Salt Lake County’s top prosecutor announced the creation of a panel that will review the cases of people who say they are innocent despite being found guilty in court.

The first such oversight board in Utah, it will provide an independent review of the conduct of prosecutors and potential cases of wrongful conviction.

Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill announced Monday that his office has launched a conviction integrity unit, a five-member panel that includes former judges, a defense attorney, a prosecutor and a community representative. The unit will select cases to review and then decide whether further investigation is needed. The panel will also prepare a public report, which will include a vote of whether there is clear evidence that a “valid claim of innocence” has been presented.

“This board will have independence,” Gill said at a Monday news conference.

Gill said if the board believes a person is innocent, his office can then decide what to do from there. It could mean a prosecutor and a defense attorney file a joint motion in court asking a judge to vacate the sentence. Or it could end in a letter from the district attorney’s office to the Utah Board of Pardons and Parole seeking relief.

When asked whether prosecutors within the office could be disciplined if the unit finds misconduct, Gill said it would be handled on a case-by-case basis.

“You do not want to be afraid to review,” he said. “This is about recognizing any errors that may have occurred. It is also to create a culture — a proactive affirmative culture — where we start to adopt practices going forward. Should something be found, that is exactly the point, is to be able to call attention to that and correct that.”

The review panel will be headed by recently retired Utah Supreme Court Justice Christine Durham, who said Monday that the board’s work will “honor the values of impartiality, justice and fairness” in the criminal justice system.

“This step, the conviction integrity unit, will have importance not only on individual cases where claims are brought,” she said, “but on the thinking, the orientation and the quality of work that prosecutors in this office will be doing henceforth as they pursue their duties.”

Beyond Durham, the unit will include former 3rd District Judge Judith Atherton, former deputy Salt Lake County district attorney Robert Stott, defense attorney Gilbert Athay and the Rev. France Davis of Calvary Baptist Church.

Gill said his office has been working on creating the board for several years.

Monday’s announcement came just weeks before an election where he is facing an opponent from within his office — timing that Republican candidate Nathan Evershed said was “curious.”

Evershed, a deputy district attorney, said Monday he supports the the conviction integrity unit, and has since a former colleague first brought the idea to administrators several years ago.

Evershed said there wasn’t any specific case or situation that sparked the idea, adding that it was considered as prosecutors in other states created similar units.

He said if elected, he’ll keep the unit in place.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Nathan Evershed. The Campaign for Smart Justice Project - Utah and the Alliance for a Better Utah Education Fund will host a debate in the race for Salt Lake County District Attorney with Democratic candidate Sim Gill and Republican candidate Nathan Evershed, pictured, in Salt Lake City on Wednesday Oct. 3, 2018.

“It’s a great development,” Evershed said, adding it should be a prosecutor’s “worst nightmare” to wrongfully convict someone who is innocent.

The conviction integrity unit will review cases after a defendant or attorney fills out an application detailing the innocence claims. It will only review claims for felony offenses that were prosecuted by the Salt Lake County district attorney’s office after the appeals process is complete. Priority is given to a case if a defendant is currently behind bars because of the questionable conviction.

Officials in other counties have debated creating prosecutor oversight panels.

The Davis County attorney’s office has adopted a more informal system. County Attorney Troy Rawlings has said his office investigates complaints of questionable convictions before having an outside office review the findings.

Utah County commissioners earlier this year debated creating a prosecutorial review board, but a final vote was delayed indefinitely.

The three commissioners have been discussing the possibility since May 2017, when a group of Utah County residents asked them to create a body outside the county attorney’s office to provide oversight of 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.

Prosecutors there pushed back, saying 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 their actions will be questioned.

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