Summit County launches a program to overturn wrongful convictions
‘Conviction integrity unit’ will evaluate applications of those who claim miscarriages of justice
The Summit County Attorney’s Office on Wednesday announced it is launching a “conviction integrity unit,” a new tool that County Attorney Margaret Olson says can provide a pathway to justice for those who have been wrongfully convicted of a crime.
There are several layers of review before a conviction can be overturned and a sentence commuted, but the program allows those who have been convicted of a crime a chance to challenge it if new evidence comes to light.
Olson indicated the unit would contribute to a foundational part of society: trust in the legal system.
“This is really the heart of it: We have to have confidence in the convictions. We have to have, those convictions have to have integrity,” she told the Summit County Council in presenting the idea. “If there is significant probability that the result would have been different because of a technology tool or an advanced alibi or newly discovered evidence or a witness’s changed testimony, we need to be able to address that.”
The review is open to those who have been convicted in Summit County by the Summit County Attorney’s Office of a felony or misdemeanor. Death penalty cases are handled at the state level.
After reviewing a case, the unit can recommend that the county attorney ask a judge to vacate a previous conviction or commute a sentence.
In briefing the Summit County Council, which indicated support for the initiative, Olson said the criminal justice system generally works well, but that it is not immune from mistakes.
“There is no greater injustice than a person being wrongfully convicted of a crime,” she said. “This new tool will allow us to go back and look at convictions 30, 20, 10 years old, and look at them for substantial justice and for factual innocence.”
The conviction integrity unit will include a chairperson, who organizes the work and initially reviews each application, and a six-member panel. If the chair determines after the initial case review that the application merits further review, the panel will take up the application.
Together, the chair and the panel will then review case materials and will be able to pursue additional fact-finding before deciding if an application warrants review by the county attorney. It is the county attorney’s decision whether to recommend the case to a judge.
Olson indicated her office would support the panel’s reviews, including making investigative resources available.
Once the chair determines further investigation is warranted, the chair is to notify any victims in the case, the attorneys who argued the case, the convicted person and their attorney.
Summit County Councilor Roger Armstrong was named the unit’s chair and said he was “more than honored” to serve.
The panel includes three representatives each from the east and west sides of the county and several people who can speak Spanish.
The panelists are: Armstrong, representing Park City; Eric Esquival and Mark Moffat, representing the Snyderville Basin; Evelyn Furse, representing eastern Summit County; Alex Peterson, representing South Summit; Summit County Sheriff’s Lt. Kacey Bates, representing North Summit; and Lizeette Zurita, an at-large appointment.
Their experience ranges from Marine Corps service to work as a judge.
Summit County is the third county in Utah to establish a conviction integrity unit, Olson said, following Salt Lake County and Utah County. Olson said she borrowed heavily from the work done by attorneys in the other jurisdictions.
Neither unit has yet overturned a past conviction, Olson said, though both are short lived.
Conviction integrity units are made possible by state legislation passed last year. Olson indicated she did not pursue the project until this year because of the office’s heavy workload in 2020.
Olson said she would judge the unit’s success not by the number of convictions it overturns but rather by the public’s knowledge of it as a resource.
She said she didn’t have any particular case — or type of case — in mind when she pursued establishing the program.
“I don’t know of any (such cases). Obviously, I would address them if I knew of them, but there’s no way for me to know about them,” she said.
Now, she hopes, there is.
Application materials and more information are available online at summitcounty.org/attorney.
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Residents will be able to weigh in regarding the hotly disputed proposal to build a large mixed-use development at the site of the Tech Center. The hearing is set for 6 p.m. at the Newpark Resort conference center.