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Salt Lake County DA spars with state officials over conviction integrity bill

Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill questions why the Attorney Generals office is skeptical of a conviction integrity unit. (Exterior of the SLCO District Attorney's Office. Credit: Paul Nelson)

SALT LAKE CITY – One of the busiest prosecutors in Utah has harsh words for the Utah Attorney General’s Office about a conviction integrity bill.

House Bill 325 lets county attorneys create a “conviction integrity unit,” or CIU, which examines past criminal convictions. If someone was wrongfully convicted, the CIU can make recommendations about whether the conviction should be vacated or not.

The Utah Attorney General’s office believes the issue needs more research, and that the proposed bill reflects that.

Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill believes the AG’s pushback limits Gill’s ability to vacate the convictions of people wrongly convicted in Utah.

The AG’s office says their concern is far more complicated than that.

Conviction integrity unit

The argument is over House Bill 324.  It lets county attorneys create a “conviction integrity unit,” or CIU, that takes a close look at past convictions.  The CIU can recommend whether the conviction should be vacated if someone was wrongfully convicted.

Gill asserts he has the implied authority to do that, already.  The bill would just write it officially into law.

“This does not create any new powers.  It’s just simply asserting powers that we’ve already had,” Gill said.

A CIU already exists

Gill says he created his own CIU, roughly a year ago.  He assigned legal heavy-hitters to the unit, which include a well-respected trial attorney, a lawyer that worked for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, a man with decades of experience as a defense attorney and a former chief justice for the Utah Supreme Court.

He calls this a “solid group” of legal minds that will be able to find cases where prosecutors made mistakes.

“As public prosecutors, when we examine that, our ethical, moral and legal responsibility is to [set] that innocent person free,” Gill said.

He also said that since his office files charges in the first place, it should be his office that vacates the conviction.  He questions the claims that doing so would impede the AG’s ability to handle appeals.

“When we’ve talked to academics and other people that have been doing this, that list of fears is something that’s just not real,” Gill says.  “The focus really ought to be on doing justice.”

Officials with the Attorney General’s Office say they’re not as opposed to the bill as people may believe.  They issued a statement to KSL saying, “The AG’s Office is optimistic that, with adequate study and planning by those familiar with these issues, HB 324 could be revised in a way that would create conviction integrity units that will serve their intended purpose while preserving the state’s important defenses for federal habeas cases. But as drafted, HB 324 falls short of that mark.”

The Attorney General’s Office responds

The statement also reads that the AG’s office is already responsible for the four ways the state ensures convictions are valid.  Namely:

“First, it handles all appeals of all felony convictions in the state. Utah Code 67-5-1(2).

 Second, after a direct appeal ends, defendants get at least one other chance for a state court to review their conviction. That post-appeal review process happens through the Postconviction Remedies Act, or PCRA. PCRA proceedings “are civil” proceedings, not criminal proceedings. Utah Code 78B-9-102(1)(a). Because the attorney general’s office must “take charge, as attorney, of all civil legal matters in which the state is interested,” Utah Code 67-5-1(2), only the AG’s Office can represent the state in PCRA proceedings. And PCRA proceedings are a defendant’s “sole remedy” for challenging a conviction after a direct appeal ends. Utah Code 78B-9-102(1)(a).

 Third, the AG’s Office represents the state if a defendant asks a federal court to review the constitutionality of his conviction. Utah Code 67-5-1(2). Those federal proceedings are also known as federal habeas corpus review.

 Fourth, the PCRA contains an additional narrow set of remedies to cure extreme miscarriages of justice. Even if they lose on appeal and in PCRA proceedings, defendants can ask a court to declare them factually innocent. Those proceedings occur as outlined in Utah Code 78B-9-401 and the sections following it. Just last September, the Utah Attorney General’s Office stipulated to factual-innocence relief under those provisions for two defendants—Christopher Allen Wickham and David Hawkins—who were prosecuted and convicted in Salt Lake County. The combined statutory payouts to those two defendants for those wrongful convictions will total nearly $1 million.”

Related:

SLCO D.A. creates conviction review advisory board