The Rocky Mountain Innocence Center is calling for more counties in Utah to set up conviction integrity units, which are essentially review boards that work to free people who've been wrongfully convicted.
The first convictions to be overturned through this relatively new process are in the works, announced Tuesday by Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill.
A state law in 2018 gave the units legal backing, but they're optional, according to Steve Burton, who leads the Utah Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
So far, at least four counties have created them, including Salt Lake, Utah, Davis and Summit counties.
Jensie Anderson, legal director for the Center, said Utah is "a little behind the curve." She said her nonprofit is willing to help smaller counties establish units.
"I think all of the counties ultimately should probably have one," she said.
Anderson called Tuesday's announcement a "promising sign." She hopes two of her clients could be freed through two different units in the coming months, and long-term, she hopes more of their cases will be successful.
Burton said conviction integrity units are often made up of judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, community members and civil liberties advocates.
"The conviction integrity unit provides a less formal, less strict avenue to have a conviction looked at and to try to push for justice if that’s what you think needs to happen," he said.
Oftentimes appeals and other legal avenues must be filed within a month or a year of a conviction.
Burton said one criticism of the units is that they simply offer recommendations, leaving the county's top prosecutor as the ultimate decision-maker.
"Even the counties that are trying to do the right thing, if the county prosecutor doesn’t believe it’s politically expedient or for his or her own personal reasons doesn’t decide that they should do it, they don’t have to," Burton said.
Anderson also wants the Utah Attorney General's Office to consider creating a conviction integrity unit. She said state law gives that agency the sole power to be able to declare someone innocent, whereas county attorneys can ask for convictions to be vacated.
The action by county attorneys can secure someone's release from prison, but the declaration of innocence is important for many people who've been wrongfully convicted, Anderson said.
Richard Piatt, deputy chief of staff for the AG's office, said in a statement:
"The Utah Attorney General's Office has long relied on statutes that predate the Conviction Integrity Unit statute to accomplish the same outcomes, and in some cases, more generous outcomes than those permitted by the CIU statute. Those statues provided, and still provide, the framework for granting relief to the wrongfully convicted. And when appropriate, our office has agreed to that relief. In fact, we have on occasion agreed to innocence relief that resulted not only in vacating and expunging the conviction, but also in compensation for the innocent person. Compensation is not available under the CIU statute. In short, we already can do more under the other statutes than we could do under the CIU statute."