SALT LAKE CITY — Public defenders in Salt Lake County are being flooded with calls from people asking to have convictions overturned.
These cases may be linked to West Valley City police officers whose evidence gathering tactics may be in question. Between the Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office and the U.S. Attorney's Office, 98 cases submitted by the West Valley Police Department have been thrown out recently because of credibility issues within the Neighborhood Narcotics Unit.
The unit was disbanded after two undercover drug detectives fatally shot 21-year-old Danielle Willard and provoked an internal investigation. In a press conference Tuesday, West Valley Mayor Mike Winder addressed the recent dismissals.
"We are upset, as elected officials, and we want to make sure things like this do not happen again," he said, adding that while there is an ongoing investigation on the credibility of some cases, the department sees several thousand successfully prosecuted each year.
Public defenders say they have received dozens of calls from family members of people convicted of these narcotics crimes. They want these cases reexamined. But, sifting through these convictions is becoming an incredibly difficult task.
"Figuring out what we have, currently, and what we have had in the past, related to these issues, is monumental (as we're) trying to weave through things and determine what, exactly, we have," said Salt Lake Legal Defenders Assistant Director Patrick Corum.
Corum said convictions will have to be cross referenced with the names of officers from the neighborhood narcotics unit, and there are a lot of convictions to look into. "It sure seems to me that they were a very active group of officers and there were a lot of cases coming in from them," he said.
After that, investigators will look into how involved the officer was in the case before they can determine if there is a problem with the evidence in the case.
"It is very difficult to legally go back into a case after it has been sitting around for a couple of years," Corum.
The whole process could take months or even years, depending on how much cooperation they get from the Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office.
If convictions are overturned, it could have a major ripple effect into other agencies. Corum said it could affect immigration cases, since many of the people convicted were also deported. Federal convictions may have been enhanced because of cases tried in Salt Lake County. Plus, there could be a large number of civil cases that come to court if someone was wrongfully convicted.