For the past two years, Don Harman has felt like a man slowly drowning in a turbulent sea - a merciless force he could not control.
In October 1986, evidence-tampering indictments were handed up against him by a grand jury, and he was found guilty of related charges in a court trial the following year.For two years he has felt "sucked in, pulled down" by the gravity of a "GUILTY" label that he knew was unfounded.
The relentless pressure of fighting a false conviction was lifted Wednesday afternoon when he received a written decision by the Utah Court of Appeals, overturning the guilty verdict.
The appellate court judges cleared up any question of guilt in their strongly worded decision: "We believe the evidence was so slight, so conflicting and so inherently improbable that reasonable minds could not have concluded that Harman rejected the (fire) report in an attempt to alter, destroy, conceal or to impair its verity."
"So now where do I go to get my reputation back?" asks Harman.
With bitterness, he recalls the contrast of serving in a position of public trust as chief investigator for the Salt Lake County attorney's office. And then, within the same week, being fired from his job, dishonored and asked to clean out his desk because of his conviction.
"There was no consideration for the fact I had served 18 years in law enforcement with an unblemished record. After the conviction, my reputation was ruined. No questions asked," said Harman.
The jury found Harman guilty of attempting to cover up a written report on a fire that destroyed a Murray office building and could have made the county liable for $2.5 million.
"People who knew the situation understood I was not guilty. They knew I would not personally benefit from covering up the report. Why would I risk it? I had no motive."
The judge placed Harman on probation for 18 months, fined him $2,500 and ordered 600 hours of community service for the misdemeanor conviction. Another county investigator, Ralph Tolman, was also convicted and sentenced in connection with the fire report. A decision on his appeal had not been received by Thursday.
Once voted "Most Outstanding Law Enforcement Officer," Harman was unable to find full-time employment in his field following his conviction. To support his family, he worked sporadically as an investigator on federally assigned cases involving indigents.
He hopes the high court's vindication will open new doors for him.
While the past years have been filled with many humiliating and dark moments, Harman and his family have fought despondency through dogged determination and faith that they would find justice in a higher court.
Although he initially felt "betrayed" by the justice system he had supported for so many years, Harman believed that ultimately the lack of evidence in his case would justify his exoneration.
The circus-like atmosphere surrounding the grand jury indictments and the media-frenzy of the trial may have influenced the jury to return a guilty verdict, Harman believes. The jury deliberated 29 hours before finding Harman guilty, proof that there was a lot of ambivalence, he said.
Following his conviction, Harman complained loudly about the corruption of the grand jury system. But he felt his concerns fell on deaf ears because people believe it was "just sour grapes coming from a sore loser."
As a vindicated victim of the grand jury system, Harman believes his criticisms will be taken seriously now. He is committed to aggressively supporting current efforts to change the county grand jury system.
Legislation is being proposed that dramatically changes the grand jury statute. If amendments are approved by lawmakers, targets of investigation will be given an opportunity to have an attorney present and to offer evidence in their defense, for instance.
Third District Judge Scott Daniels has recommended abolishing the grand jury system, calling it an expensive star-chamber.
"History has shown that a prosecutor can get anyone indicted they want to. Even though the charges may be later cleared, it ruins someone's reputation for life," Daniels said.
The judge's criticism of the grand jury system underscores the problems of the "witch-hunt system of justice," said Harman.
Describing his traumatic experience of standing before the grand jury, Harman said: "It was late at night. The jury room was dark, the proceedings secret, and guards prevented an uninvited guest from entering.
"I felt like a prisoner in a foreign country."
The exorbitant fees spent by taxpayers on the grand jury outrages Harman. He says the uncontrolled salary paid prosecutors only encourages abuse of the system. "The prosecutors were like highly paid soldiers with no war. They created a war to justify their existence," he said.
Harman's attorney, Ed Brass, urges amending Utah's grand jury laws.
"A terrible thing has happened to an honorable man. He has suffered tremendously because of this injustice. He has lost his job, his income - and most tragically, his reputation.
"Anyone indicted by a grand jury is presumed to be guilty. The system is unjust and must be changed."