It’s been two years since Salt Lake County’s top prosecutor announced he would create a panel to review the cases of people who say they are innocent despite being found guilty in court.
The Conviction Integrity Unit, which is comprised of heavy-hitters in Utah’s legal world, came to its first public conclusion Wednesday.
It recommended that the guilty verdicts remain for a man who is serving time for sexually assaulting a woman and a child in September 2007.
That man, Ryan David Burke, had asserted the woman lied and that he didn’t harm the child because he had an alibi: He had been cashing a forged check at the time when the child said she was abused.
But the Conviction Integrity Unit said in its findings that after scouring evidence for the last year in Burke’s case, there wasn’t enough to support that alibi.
“It does not, in our opinion, exonerate him,” the panel wrote. “It does not establish, by a preponderance, that he could not have been at the [victim’s] home when the crimes alleged were committed. Instead, the facts as we have them and as interpreted in light of the circumstances of the case establish by a preponderance that Mr. Burke was there.”
The alleged crime happened in September 2007, after Burke attended a high school reunion with an acquaintance he had known since middle school. They came home in the early morning hours of Sept. 15, and Burke went to sleep on a couch.
Prosecutors allege that Burke pestered his friend’s sister, and eventually groped her. She locked herself and the child in the master bedroom, but woke up in the morning to find the girl had left the room.
A Utah Court of Appeals opinion says that the child had gone into the basement and found Burke “watching a grownup movie,” and said the man forced her to touch him sexually.
Prosecutors say Burke had purchased several pornographic movies that morning, and when he was ordered out of the house by the girl’s aunt, he grabbed his friend’s checkbook and passport. Burke then drove to a grocery store and cashed three forged checks, with a timestamp of 9:18 a.m.
Burke argued that he was innocent, and that the timestamp on the forged checks and the timestamp of the purchase of the pornographic films left only a very small time window for the assault to occur.
He alleged at trial that witnesses had lied because they were angry that he unexpectedly slept at their home uninvited and inebriated. But the jurors didn’t get to hear evidence about his alibi or the forged checks during his 2008 trial.
The jury convicted him of aggravated sexual abuse of a minor, sexual abuse and dealing in material harmful to a minor. He is serving up to life in prison.
Despite a jury not hearing testimony about the forged checks, the Conviction Integrity Unit recommended that the verdict was sound.
Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill said in a letter to Burke that he won’t take any further action in his case right now.
“As prosecutors we have a tremendous responsibility to ensure justice is done,” Gill said in a statement. “If someone is wrongfully convicted, we have a duty to right that wrong. Our Conviction Integrity Unit has been careful, diligent, and deliberate in reaching a conclusion. I accept their recommendation and support the findings. We will never close the door on a claim of innocence, new information always has the possibility of changing a decision.”
The Conviction Integrity Unit includes former Utah Supreme Court Chief Justice Christine Durham, retired 3rd District Judge Judith Atherton, former prosecutor David Schwendiman, longtime defense attorney Gil Athay and Michelle Love-Day, a community representative who works for Jordan School District. They all work on a volunteer-basis.
Salt Lake County’s Conviction Integrity Unit is the first of its kind for Utah. Across the United States, there are nearly 60 units across the country, with new ones popping up every year.
If the panel decides in a future case that a person is likely innocent, Gill will then have the final decision on what to do next. 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.
But, in this first case, none of those actions will be taken and Burke will continue serving his prison sentence.