A Year After Utah Passed A Law Encouraging Conviction Review Teams, Their Numbers Are Slowly Growing
Utah passed a law last year empowering prosecutors to create special units responsible for re-examining past convictions. At least four counties now have them: Salt Lake, Utah, Summit and Davis. Davis County’s team meets for the first time on Thursday.
These “conviction integrity units” — typically composed of attorneys — choose cases to look at based on applications that the convicted or their lawyer submit. The team reviews the cases for new or undisclosed evidence. After that, they can recommend that prosecutors try to vacate the conviction or modify the sentence.
“As much as I believe in my institution and the work that we do, I also recognize that there is human error that can either consciously or unconsciously contribute to an outcome,” said Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill. “When we discover that wrong, I think we have an obligation to correct it.”
Salt Lake County started a conviction integrity unit in 2018, before the law passed. It’s issued one decision so far, but Gill said he expects the group to publish three more in the near future.
“It can be a six month or longer process,” Gill said. “It's just driven by the complexity of the issues being presented. Right now, for example, we're working on a case that transcends national borders.”
Gill’s office helped push for the statewide law in 2020. He said the teams were legal before, but he wanted to make sure the law expressly stated that in order to avoid lawsuits.
The law also created a framework for other counties to follow when creating their own conviction integrity units. Summit County Attorney Margaret Olson said that was helpful when assembling one this spring for her jurisdiction.
But Olson said there aren’t a lot of these groups yet because it’s harder to build a panel of attorneys in rural areas.
“Some ideas that I've had [to address that] would include being able to ask another jurisdiction to take a case and review it,” Olson said. “Another would be to have a floating conviction integrity unit panel that would go around the state as needed.”
Summit County’s team launched on May 1, but hasn’t received any case applications yet, according to Olson. She said she would have liked to start one closer to when the law went into effect, but the pandemic put a large strain on local governments.
“Being a smaller office, it's probably just a bandwidth issue,” she said.
Olson said later this year she’ll be leading a discussion among Utah prosecutors on how to start conviction integrity units throughout the state.