A Utah man on Tuesday was declared factually innocent of sexually abusing a 16-year-old girl and will be paid more than $600,000 to make up for the nearly 15 years he spent behind bars for the alleged crime.
Christopher Wickham is the second Utahn in the last week to be found factually innocent of a sex crime. He was convicted in 1997 of two counts of aggravated sexual assault, after a teen girl testified that two men held her down and took turns sexually assaulting her in December 1995.
Wickham has been trying to appeal his convictions ever since. The Rocky Mountain Innocence Center took on the case in 2014, after he had been released on parole, and lawyers with Stoel Rives LLP filed a factual innocence petition on Wickham’s behalf last July.
The attorneys argued in court papers that several pieces of new evidence proved that Wickham was innocent, including medical records that showed Wickham had been at a hospital being treated for injuries from a car crash during the time period when the girl said she was sexually abused.
Court papers say Wickham met the girl and several friends at a mall on Dec. 29, 1995. The girl had run away from a youth residential treatment center, and was one of a few people who told Wickham that day that they didn't have any place to stay that night.
It was Wickham's 27th birthday, and he invited them to stay at his home and attend a party. They drank Everclear and juice, the girl testified at his trial, and at some point a group of girls "jumped" her.
After the teen was hurt, she testified, she went into Wickham’s room to lie down. A friend of Wickham’s, Robert Daniel Pliego, came into the room and began touching and kissing her, she said.
She testified that the friend then called Wickham into the room and they held her down while taking turns having sex with her.
But Wickham's attorneys say their client wasn't home during the time when the girl said she was sexually assaulted.
He had left his party to go get food, he wrote in an affidavit, but his friend ended up crashing their car into a light pole while he was "doing donuts" in an icy parking lot. Wickham, along with some of his other friends, were injured in the crash. They went back to Wickham's home briefly, but then left to seek medical treatment.
The girl reported to police days later that she had been sexually assaulted, and both Wickham and Pliego were charged with rape.
Pliego wanted to testify at Wickham's trial, court papers say, but his attorney told him not to because he was charged with the same crimes and it could affect his case. He would have told the jurors that he was the only one who had sex with the young teen, and that it had been consensual.
But after a one-day trial, jurors found Wickham guilty of two first-degree felony charges of aggravated sexual assault. He was later sentenced to a 10-year-to-life prison term.
Pliego, meanwhile, was allowed to take a plea deal, and admitted to having sexual contact with a 16 or 17 year old. He was sentenced to a zero-to-five year term.
Wickham was released from prison on parole 15 years later, in 2011. He maintained his innocence throughout that time.
His attorneys argued that Wickham could prove he was innocent with Pliego's declaration that he was alone when he had sex with the girl, paired with statements from Wickham's friends saying they were at the hospital with him.
The Utah Attorney General’s Office did not dispute Wickham’s innocence in court papers, and 3rd District Judge Royal Hansen made it official when he signed an order on Monday. The state will pay Wickham $615,960.
Blair Hodson, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Innocence Center, said Wickham was overwhelmed by the news on Tuesday and wasn’t available for an interview.
Wickham is the sixth person in Utah to be exonerated under a state law enacted in 2008 that allows convictions to be reconsidered based on new evidence.
Last Friday, a judge signed an order finding another Utah man, David Hawkins, innocent of sexually abusing his sons when they were children. Hawkins’ children have since recanted their allegations, saying they made up lies because they were upset at the way they were treated at home and how their father disciplined them. Hawkins will be paid more than $350,000 for the more than seven years he spent incarcerated.
Though Wickham’s and Hawkins’ petitions were granted close in time to one another, being found factually innocent in Utah is considered rare.
UTAHNS FOUND FACTUALLY INNOCENT
• Debra Brown, who served 17 years in prison for the 1993 shooting death of Lael Brown in Logan. Awarded more than $500,000.
• Jed Gressman was in prison for three years for an aggravated sexual assault before being cleared by DNA evidence of the crime. Awarded $220,000.
• Harry Miller served more than four years in prison for a robbery he didn’t commit. Awarded an estimated $120,000.
• Kevin Peterson was in prison for 15 years for sexual abuse of a child. Awarded $70,000.
• David Hawkins served more than seven years in prison for sexual abuse of a child. Awarded more than $350,000.
• Christopher Wickham was in prison for nearly 15 years for aggravated sexual abuse. Awarded more than $600,000.
Scott Reed, with the attorney general’s office, said these cases are tough to prove — a convicted person must show that there is new evidence that is clearly convincing.
“That is truly rare,” he said, “because our investigators are generally so thorough and so good at what they do. They go out and find everything there is to find.”
Debra Brown was the first person to be exonerated under the 2008 Utah law. After a judge declared her innocent in 2011, she was paid more than $500,000. She had been incarcerated for 17 years after being convicted of shooting her boss in the head.
Since then, a handful of men have been deemed innocent of sex abuse crimes, and one man was exonerated for a robbery he didn’t commit.