PROVO — Former Provo City Councilman Steve Turley. Ex-Miss Utah Elizabeth Craig. Relatives to a murdered BYU professor, Pamela and Roger Mortensen. Orem resident Conrad Truman.
These five Utah County citizens have found themselves at the center of high-profile criminal prosecutions within the last decade whose cases ended in acquittal or were dismissed — but not without a cost.
Citing personal losses — including shame and embarrassment — as well as tens of thousands in financial damage, a group representing those that have been falsely accused of crimes appeared before the Utah County Commission last week to request something that would be unprecedented in the state of Utah: an oversight board for the county attorney's office.
Among them was Turley, who was accused by the Utah County Attorney's Office of 10 fraud felonies that were eventually dismissed, but not after more than four years of legal battles, a resignation from his elected office and thousands in attorney's fees.
"And added to that, the shame," he said Tuesday. "I had a friend bump into me not too long ago that said, 'Oh, have you already done your prison time?' You carry that with you, my friends, throughout your life."
His only recourse, despite how much Turley says he "loathes" litigation, is to file a lawsuit, which he did in February.
Yet lawsuits alleging misconduct are often unsuccessful due to immunity laws protecting prosecutors.
"I have zero respect for the justice system," he said. "It's a huge disappointment. Where's the justice?"
Before Turley, there was Pamela and Roger Mortensen, who in 2009 were charged with murdering Roger's father, former BYU professor Kay Mortensen. The couple spent four months in jail and were just weeks away from standing trial for the killing when new information pointed investigators in a different direction. Two other men were arrested.
It's a story that caught the attention of NBC's “Dateline.”
Then there was Truman, who spent four years in prison before being found not guilty of killing his wife during a second murder trial earlier this year. The second trial was granted after the discovery that jurors relied on incorrect measurements of the couple's home that had made Truman's explanation of the shooting seem implausible.
Another Utah County case that ended in dismissal: Craig, the ex-beauty queen accused of stealing more than $1 million worth of products from Nu Skin to sell online. She was charged with money laundering, theft and racketeering. But Craig said the products had been donated for charity. A judge dismissed her charges in 2010, but that didn't reverse the damage that derailed her career as a motivational speaker, Craig said in a statement shared in last week's meeting.
"Did I feel relief to no longer be facing life in prison? Yes," she said. "But could (the judge) order (Utah County Attorney) Jeff Buhman to give my life back? No."
Craig said she "did nothing wrong," and yet she still faces the perception that if a person is acquitted of charges, they get off "on a technicality."
"I do not want what happened to me to happen to someone else," she said.
That's why Ben Stanley, a Pleasant Grove city councilman and an attorney, urged Utah County commissioners to consider forming the Utah County Restorative Justice Commission, a board that would consider cases of wrongful prosecution and investigate claims of prosecutorial misconduct.
"I support any effort to try to bring some accountability and some oversight in an area where liberty and justice interests are at stake," Stanley said. "Given the high-profile errors and allegations of misconduct and wrongful prosecutions tarnishing the reputation of the Utah County prosecution office, I appreciate the potential of a grass-roots effort and a citizen-proposed commission to increase awareness of the need for prosecutors to comply with constitutional obligations."
But Buhman, in an interview Friday, said the initiative is less of a citizen-driven "reform effort" and more of a "political effort."
He pointed out that Stanley ran against him for county attorney in 2014.
Buhman also said his office has never been found guilty of any misconduct.
"Do we make mistakes? Occasionally, of course we do," he said, but he added that it's "ludicrous" to suggest his team has engaged in improprieties.
"We maintain the highest ethical standard in our office," he said.
Buhman said he agrees "any mistake made is one too many, but it's utterly impossible to be a prosecutor and not make mistakes."
"What we do, we involve people — witnesses can make mistakes," he said. "Sometimes they lie to us and get things wrong. Occasionally we make decisions based on erroneous information. That's going to happen in any district attorney's office."
Buhman said his office has already looked internally at creating a citizen advisory board, but it has run into some difficulties: confidentiality issues and concerns of bringing in people who don't have experience as prosecution experts.
He added that as an elected official, it's his responsibility to "make sure prosecutions are done ethically, properly and fairly."
"And that's what I do," he said. "That's already my job."
Buhman's chief deputy, Timothy Taylor, said the county attorney's office already has checks in place: the state bar, state and federal courts and the Utah Attorney General's Office. He said the immunity law is also a "necessary tool," otherwise prosecutors may be more worried about getting sued rather than seeking justice.
Libertas Institute President Connor Boyack said Friday his group supports a Utah County Restorative Justice Commission — but not to target Utah County, only to support the concept of oversight committees for every prosecution office in Utah.
"I know Jeff Buhman, and his office isn't going to like it and see it as an inquisition, but this is not about any one county attorney; this is about helping the public be confident in their power," Boyack said.
"The whole idea here is to establish some sort of process wherein Utah there can be some accountability, not just to punish bad prosecutors who are unethical or doing anything illegal," he continued.1 comment on this story
In an interview Friday, Utah County Commissioner Bill Lee said he needs to spend more time studying the issue before making any determinations, but citizens coming forward to speak out have given him "pause enough" to want more information.
"One of my responsibilities as an elected official is to listen," he said. "I think it's advantageous for us to at least have the responsibility and the courage to take a look at these issues."
Lee said the is expected to be discussed at an upcoming work session meeting, but a date hasn't been set.