Salt Lake County D.A. says convictions for these two men ‘lacked integrity’ and asks they be vacated

The cases were reviewed by Sim Gill’s Conviction Integrity Unit, a panel that looks at cases of people who say they are innocent.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill speaks during a press announcement on Thursday, July 22, 2021, at the district attorney’s office.

Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill has asked a judge to vacate convictions for two men who were prosecuted as adults a decade ago even though they were teenagers and their cases should have been in the juvenile system.

The outcomes of their cases could have been different if their cases had stayed in the juvenile system. The men — one convicted of a misdemeanor sex offense and another of a felony drug crime — both spent some time in jail. And both were deported because of the convictions.

“They may have had very fundamentally different outcomes,” Gill said Tuesday.

The cases were reviewed by Gill’s Conviction Integrity Unit, a panel that reviews the cases of people who say they are innocent despite being convicted in court.

But in these two cases, the panel didn’t consider guilt or innocence. They found in both that the procedural error of having the teenagers tried as adults meant that their convictions “lacked integrity” and should be reviewed.

Gill said they filed the paperwork asking a judge to vacate the convictions on Monday.

“There was a series of procedural errors that were conducted, but the end of which is a conviction that cannot stand,” he said. “That is not the fault of the defendant. It is really the institutional responsibility of all of us. And if we’re going to say that there is integrity in our process, then we have to be able to own and acknowledge those mistakes.”

Marlon Lambur-Navarro was 17 years old when he was arrested in 2010 for distributing a small amount of drugs, according to a motion filed by Gill’s office.

Lambur-Navarro pleaded guilty to a second-degree felony, which included punishment of 30 days in jail and deportation to Honduras.

But Gill said the judge was relying on an incorrect date of birth in court records, which listed Lambur-Navarro’s birth year as 1991 and was 18. But he was actually born in 1992.

He should have been prosecuted in juvenile court, but instead was charged and sentenced in the adult system.

Jose Barerra-Landa faced a similar situation. He was also arrested in 2010 after police say he had sex with a 12-year-old girl two years prior.

He was 17 at the time of the alleged crime, and his case should have been filed in the juvenile system. But prosecutors filed the case in adult court, and Barerra-Landa pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor sexual battery charge.

He also was sentenced to 30 days in jail and was deported to Mexico.

Barerra-Landa wrote in his application for review that he denied having sex with the girl, but said the officer who arrested him said if he said he was guilty he would not be “charged with a crime because he was just a juvenile.”

Years later, both men were caught trying to illegally re-enter the United States, according to Gill’s office. Their cases have been resolved and they are no longer in custody, but their attorney in their immigration cases asked Gill’s office for the review.

That attorney, Benji McMurray, said that both of the men were deported again recently for illegal re-entry. But he said that with the convictions vacated, there is now an avenue for them to legally come to the United States. It won’t be easy to return, McMurray said, but it’s at least possible.

It wasn’t with those convictions on their records.

“They faced a real stigma,” he said. “They were perceived as people here with bad intentions to harm our country.”

McMurray said both of his clients told him that they were convicted of adults crimes when they were teens, and he began verifying their claims through their documentation. He said if Gill didn’t have a Conviction Integrity Unit, he would have had to petition the court for relief — a sometimes complicated process that can be mired in legal arguments over whether a judge can even hear the evidence in the case.

“I’ve seen enough errors baked into convictions that were final, so I think this is a really important thing,” he said. “It’s a huge need in other jurisdictions, other counties in Utah or the federal court, to be open to the possibility that mistakes have been made and be willing to go back and take a look.”

This is the first time that Gill’s Conviction Integrity Unit has determined that a conviction should be vacated. They’ve weighed in on just one other case, where a man was accused of sexually assaulting a woman and child in her home. The man claimed he had an alibi — that he was cashing a forged check at the time — but the panel determined there wasn’t enough evidence to support that alibi.

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.

There are currently two other panels like this operating in Utah.