PROVO — Utah County is on track to become perhaps the first county in the nation to create an independent review board to hold its prosecutors accountable.
The Utah County Commission approved last week a resolution to establish a prosecutorial review committee by the end of the year.
At least five Utah County residents have found themselves at the center of high-profile criminal prosecutions within the last decade — but all of their cases have since ended in acquittal or were dismissed.
It was this string of cases that lead a group of Utah County residents to ask the commission in May to form a committee to review cases and whether they were handled appropriately and ethically.
Utah County Commissioner Bill Lee said he and his colleagues supported the resolution to move forward with the creation of the review board because they've been "hearing a lot from citizens and groups encouraging us to take a look at this issue."
"With a lot of power comes a lot of responsibility," Lee said of the prosecutor's office. "We want them to be strong on crime, but also we don't want them to go in the wrong direction."
While Lee said he doesn't have enough information to make any judgments about whether Utah County's prosecutors have acted improperly, he said, "there are groups of people who feel like there are problems."
Those cases include, most recently, the acquittal of Conrad Truman, who was accused of murdering his wife but was found not guilty after a second trial, which was ordered after jurors in the first trial had relied on incorrect measurements of Truman's home when passing their initial verdict.
There was also the case of Pamela and Roger Mortensen, which captured the attention of NBC's "Dateline." The Mortensen's were charged in 2009 with murdering Roger's father, Kay Mortensen, and spent four months in jail before the ex-wife of the actual killer came forward with information.
Former Provo City Councilman Steve Turley, who was charged with 10 fraud felonies that were ultimately dismissed, has also urged Utah County commissioners to create the review board. In May, he told the commission that Utah County prosecutors' actions have ruined his reputation and his respect for the justice system.
The Utah County Attorney's Office has never been found guilty of any misconduct.
Utah County Attorney Jeff Buhman could not be reached for comment Friday, but Lee said the commission has been working with county attorneys to form the committee.
"With a lot of power comes a lot of responsibility. "We want them to be strong on crime, but also we don't want them to go in the wrong direction."
Previously, Buhman and his deputy have deemed a review board unneeded, since the county attorney's office already has checks in place, including the state bar, state and federal courts, and the Utah Attorney General's Office.
But Lee said he and other commissioners are acting in response to phone calls, emails and petitions from groups saying "this is really needed to give us more confidence in our legal system."
Those groups include the Center for Prosecutor Integrity and the Innocence Project, as well as the Libertas Institute.
"We definitely view this resolution as a positive step," said Connor Boyack, Libertas Institute president. "Utah County has, unfortunately, had its fair share of cases where a commission like this could be an additional check and balance in our system to make sure people aren't being unfairly targeted or prosecuted in the county."
Boyack said an independent prosecutorial review board would be an "innovation, something unique" that hasn't been done in Utah or the country. He said he hopes the model can be applied to other municipalities throughout the state.
Because Utah County commissioners don't know of a committee to "model" after, Lee said it's a challenge to "start from scratch."
Lee said it's too early to say exactly how Utah County's committee will be structured or who it will report to, but he hopes to work through the details over the next several months. He said he'd like a variety of individuals on the board — including a judge, a legislator, a citizen not involved in the legal system, and perhaps some experts like a chemist or a forensic scientist.
"I want it to be done right, " Lee said. "We're trying to be as deliberate as possible to create something worthwhile."
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