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Wrongfully Convicted? Utah Lawmakers Advance A Bill Encouraging Prosecutors To Look Into It

Photo of the Utah state capitol building.
Brian Grimmett
/
KUER
Utah lawmakers are considering a bill that would encourage prosecutors' offices to create specialized units for reviewing past cases for possible wrongful convictions.

Conviction Integrity Units have been popping up in prosecutors' offices across the country: California, Texas and Salt Lake County to name a few. The units review convictions for new or non-disclosed evidence and can recommend that prosecutors try to vacate the conviction or modify the sentence. 

“If you find that you pursued a conviction and someone is in prison wrongfully based on your actions as a prosecutor, it stands to reason it’s your job to fix it,” said Darcy Goddard with the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office.

A bill approved by the Utah House Judiciary Committee Friday would encourage more prosecutors’ offices throughout the state to create their own Conviction Integrity Units. 

Seven Utahns have been exonerated under the state’s innocence statute, which gives people a way to prove their innocence without DNA evidence and was passed in 2008, according to Rep. Marsha Judkins, R-Provo, the bill’s sponsor. 

Judkins said her bill gives prosecutors the “authority and obligation to correct mistaken convictions both when someone is likely innocent and when someone may or may not be innocent.” 

She said it also allows the integrity units to call into question the conviction if it is “so fundamentally flawed that neither the courts, nor the public, nor we [lawmakers] ... can be confident the right person was convicted of the right crime.”

The bill has broad support from the criminal justice community, including the Utah State Bar, the Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice, and the Utah ACLU, with one major exception: the Utah Attorney General’s Office. 

“Although we do support the idea in concept, there are many details that need ironing out,” said Utah Assistant Solicitor General Andrew Peterson. He said the bar for moving to vacate a conviction under this bill is the conviction’s integrity rather than its legality. 

“We believe that the standard ought to be tied to constitutional and statutory violations of law, not something as nebulous as integrity,” Peterson said.

He added that the Attorney General’s Office is also concerned that the unit’s work could complicate cases that are appealed through federal court and about victims being required to re-testify.

Sonja Hutson covers politics for KUER. Follow her on Twitter @SonjaHutson

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