Utah County creates team to review guilty verdicts of people who say they are innocent

This is the second conviction integrity unit in Utah, with the other in Salt Lake County.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah County Attorney David Leavitt, pictured here during a June 2, 2020 debate when he unsuccessfully ran for Utah Attorney General, announced that his office will create a Conviction Integrity Unit to review cases where people say they are innocent.

Utah County’s top prosecutor announced the creation of a nine-person panel that will review cases of people who say they are innocent despite being found guilty in court.

County Attorney David Leavitt said the independent Conviction Integrity Unit will also consider cases where a person alleges prosecutors committed misconduct — even if the charges were ultimately dropped or the person was acquitted at trial.

“This is not a knock on prior prosecutors,” he said Wednesday. “This is simply an acknowledgement, as human beings, we need checks and we need balances. In the community, this is an essential component. Because I can think of few things that will build trust greater than this ability to acknowledge that we are fallible.”

The panel includes a former judge, attorneys, a professor and a police chief. They’ll look at applications of people who say they were wrongfully convicted and decide whether the case warrants an independent investigation. They will then make recommendations to Leavitt, who will decide next steps — like whether to ask a judge to vacate that conviction. Leavitt said he will also consider disciplinary action against his prosecutors if the panel finds misconduct. If the prosecutor is no longer employed there, the county attorney said he would consider writing a letter acknowledging the misconduct and apologizing for it.

Utah County’s Conviction Integrity Unit will include:

• Stirling Adams, attorney

• Geidy Achecar, attorney

• Craig Carlisle, attorney

• Tanner Ainge, former Utah County Commissioner

• Andrew Burton, Saratoga Springs Police Chief

• Anthony Schofield, former 4th District Judge

• Ann Marie Taliaferro, attorney

• Brett Tolman, former U.S. Attorney for Utah

• LaShawn Williams, social work professor at Utah Valley University

Two of the attorneys selected for the panel — Salt Lake City defense attorney Anne Marie Taliaferro and former U.S. attorney for Utah Brett Tolman — have been vocal critics of the Utah County Attorney’s Office in the past. They both raised allegations of prosecutorial misconduct within the office as they represented clients accused of crimes in separate cases.

Leavitt acknowledged the two attorneys have been critical, but added: “I think it’s criticism from which we can all learn.”

Tolman represented a former Provo city councilman who had been accused of fraud. He alleged that Utah County prosecutors committed misconduct when the government attorneys watched a live video feed of Tolman and his client discussing the allegations during a private, privileged conversation at the county attorney’s office. A judge agreed the prosecutors violated the defendant’s right to a fair trial — and possibly Utah wiretapping laws — but there was no remedy. The case was dropped two years later.

Talaiferro represented a man accused of killing his wife, who was acquitted after a second trial. In court papers, they alleged that police and prosecutors covered up mistakes, allowed false testimony at trial, and hid or destroyed evidence that could have helped their client. The man spent four years behind bars before his acquittal.

The county’s Conviction Integrity Unit has been years in the making, and something Leavitt has talked about since he was elected two years ago. He came into office on the heels of vocal complaints from a small group who said prosecutors in Utah County had damaged the lives of people who they say were falsely accused of crimes.

They pointed to a string of high-profile prosecutions that ended in acquittals or dismissed charges, and asked the Utah County Commission in 2017 to take an unprecedented step of forming an outside commission that would have oversight over the county attorney’s office.

The proposal drew pushback from prosecutors at the time, including then-County Attorney Jeff Buhman. He argued there was enough oversight in place through the courts — and while his prosecutors made mistakes, they never amounted to misconduct.

The County Commission never voted on creating that outside commission, hitting pause after police and prosecutors raised objections.

Commissioner Bill Lee advocated for the outside commission back then, and applauded Wednesday’s announcement.

“Years ago, we threw it on the commission agenda. We never made any action to it,” he said. “Because it wasn’t ready. We knew there were some problems with the process. But now, with David’s leadership on this, we found a way that it makes sense and we can go forward and do it in an appropriate way.”

Utah County’s Conviction Integrity Unit is the second of its kind in the state. Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill formed one in 2018, and it recently came out with its first recommendation, saying the guilty verdict should stand in a sex assault case.

There are nearly 80 conviction integrity units across the country, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. The review panels have gained popularity in recent years as district attorneys have grappled with allegations of official misconduct, mistaken eyewitness testimony, false confessions or false accusations in past convictions.