The Utah Supreme Court has ordered a lower court to review a decision of the Board of Pardons not to parole an inmate, citing his constitutional right to due process.
"I think this will generally be accepted as a landmark case. This is the first time in the history of the Board of Pardons they've had to answer to somebody," said Craig S. Cook, attorney for James Carlos Foote.In an unanimous ruling released Friday, Chief Justice Gordon R. Hall wrote there is no question that due process protections apply when a sentence is handed down.
But because Utah courts use an indeterminate sentencing system, judges do not determine the number of years a defendant will actually serve. That is up to the Board of Pardons.
"The Utah Constitution certainly requires that equivalent due process protection be afforded when the Board of Pardons determines the actual number of years a defendant is to serve," the opinion stated.
In 1985, Foote was sentenced to one to 15 years in prison after pleading guilty to sexual abuse of a child, a charge that stemmed from his touching a 6-year-old girl when he lifted her into a truck, Cook said.
Foote has appeared before the Board of Pardons three times. Each time, he has been denied a parole date even though state sentencing guidelines suggest a two-year sentence given his crime and lack of criminal history.
Cook argued before the state's high court last November that members of the Board of Pardons denied Foote access to information about allegations he abused other children in his neighborhood.
The allegations, Cook said, were brought up by board members during Foote's parole hearings and cited as their reason for denying him a release date. Cook said prisoners should be able to see their files and have an opportunity to refute any information contained in them.
Cook said Friday he hopes Foote's district court hearing will result in guidelines that will spell out to prisoners what criteria they must meet to be paroled. No such guidelines exist.
"This could be a big problem for the Board of Pardons. They could end up having to rehear thousands of cases," Cook said. No one from the Board of Pardons was available Friday for comment.