SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Supreme Court has reinstated a man's conviction for a teenage crime that had been thrown out by a lower court after he served his prison sentence.
The court on Monday reversed a decision of the Utah Court of Appeals, allowing an original ruling in the case of Cooper Van Huizen to stand.
Van Huizen's long and complicated case began in 2014 when he was 16 years old. He and four others robbed a Roy man at gunpoint of his cellphone, some money and a "little bit of weed," according to court records. Although Van Huizen did not have any prior criminal history, he was certified to stand trial as an adult and convicted under the Serious Youth Offender Act.
In district court, Van Huizen was convicted of two counts of robbery, a second-degree felony. The case then gained national attention when 2nd District Judge Ernie Jones went against presentence report recommendations and a plea agreement that had been worked out between defense attorneys and prosecutors, and sentenced Van Huizen to two concurrent terms of one to 15 years at the Utah State Prison.
Under the plea deal, attorneys had recommended a sentence of some jail time followed by probation, and that his crimes reduced to misdemeanors once probation was completed.
Six months after he was sent to prison, the Utah Board of Pardons and Parole, in a highly unusual move, ordered the boy released from prison the next day.
While he was serving time in prison, Van Huizen learned that the juvenile judge who presided over his preliminary hearing was married to the Weber County Attorney Office's chief criminal deputy attorney. Because of that, Van Huizen contended there was a potential conflict of interest that was never revealed and that the decision to bind his case over from juvenile court to district court should be thrown out.
The Utah Court of Appeals agreed.
But in a unanimous 5-0 decision handed down this week by the state's highest court, justices for the Utah Supreme Court ruled that the appeals court erred in its decision and reinstated the decision to bind the case over, thereby reinstating his conviction.
Justice Paige Petersen, who wrote the opinion for the court, said under the interpretation of the law, "it is not clear that the juvenile judge made an obvious error by not recusing herself or seeking a waiver." And there was no evidence to show the chief deputy had any involvement or influence on the case, according to the opinion.
"Indeed, no matter what the result of the bindover, Van Huizen would have still been subject to a criminal trial in juvenile court and a conviction could have been obtained there. There is no evidence of the juvenile judge's husband having 'more than a de minimis interest' in the outcome of the proceedings in juvenile court."
Although Van Huizen, now 21, argued he could not have raised the issue of a potential conflict during trial because he didn't even know about it, the Supreme Court ruled he did not meet the high burden of proving that neither he nor his attorney were aware of the potential conflict at the time of the trial.
The Utah Supreme Court did not made a decision on two other issues that the Utah Court of Appeals also declined to rule on.6 comments on this story
Van Huizen also argued that his case should not have been bound over from juvenile court because "his counsel was ineffective at the bindover hearing for failing to inform the court of the 2013 amendments to the Serious Youth Offender Act" and the juvenile court judge "misinterpreted the Serious Youth Offender Act by failing to adequately consider factors for retention that existed in this case."
The case will now be sent back to the appeals court to consider those two issues.
Van Huizen will not serve any more prison time, no matter how the court rules. But if the court rules in his favor, he would have two felony convictions erased from his adult criminal history.