When Can a Criminal Defendant Get a New Trial in Utah?

Salt Lake City criminal lawyer

It’s devastating for the defendant when a criminal trial results in a guilty verdict. However, a conviction isn’t always the end of the legal process. In limited circumstances, the court may agree to grant the defendant a new trial. In this article, criminal attorney Darwin Overson will examine some of the reasons a defendant might be given a new trial in Utah, such as ethical violations and the emergence of new evidence.

Examples of Judicial and Juror Misconduct

No defendant ever wants to be convicted of a crime. However, being unhappy with a verdict isn’t a valid reason to request (or be granted) a new trial. In accordance with Rule 24 of the Utah Rules of Criminal Procedure (Motion for a New Trial), a new trial may be granted in the interest of upholding justice only if “there is any error or impropriety which had a substantial adverse effect upon the rights of a party” – in this case, the defendant.

Female judge with brown gavel and law books

There are many different “errors or impropriet[ies]” which might arise during a criminal trial. For instance, the outcome of the trial might have been influenced by juror misconduct (also called jury misconduct). Some examples of juror misconduct include accepting bribes, involving or attempting to involve evidence which wasn’t authorized by the judge, or communicating with parties external to the case. This could even include making comments or sending messages on social media sites like Facebook.

In Remmer v. United States, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that “any private communication, contact, or tampering directly or indirectly, with a juror during a trial about the matter pending before the jury is, for obvious reasons, [presumed to be prejudicial].” If this occurs, “the burden rests heavily upon the [prosecution] to establish, after notice to and hearing of the defendant, that such contact with the juror was harmless to the defendant.” To put it another way, the prosecutor has to justify the communication as being insignificant to the outcome of the trial.

In August 2015, juror misconduct involving external communications resulted in a second mistrial against Ogden therapist Brian P. Gomez, who has been charged with six counts of sexual abuse of a child.

“Remember from World II, World War I, we had those posters that said, ‘Loose lips sink ships?’” asked Judge Roger Griffin. “That’s exactly what happened yesterday was loose lips sunk the ship.” According to Judge Griffin, one anonymous juror “couldn’t keep their mouth shut” and, as a consequence, may have tainted a large portion of the jury pool. In order to make sure Gomez would receive a fair trial, half of the jury pool had to be dismissed.

Yet it isn’t only jurors who can err. Alternately, the trial’s outcome might have been impacted by judicial misconduct, or misconduct by the judge. For instance, the Code of Judicial Conduct set forth by the Utah Judicial Conduct Commission (UJCC) prohibits judges from “commending or criticizing jurors for their verdict,” which could potentially create bias toward or against the defendant.

Other examples of judicial misconduct include:

  • Violating the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment (which covers federal courts) or Fourteenth Amendment (which covers state courts). Due process is an umbrella term describing the legal rights of defendants, such as the right to a fair, public trial.
  • Abusing judicial discretion. For example, a judge might engage in a practice called “jury-packing,” where he or she abuses authority to fill a jury with impartial jurors. Jurors are supposed to be chosen randomly and screened to ensure neutrality.
  • Showing bias toward or against the defendant, the jurors, or the attorneys on either side of the case. As the UJCC notes, “Even facial expressions and body language can convey to parties and lawyers in the proceeding, jurors, the media, and others an appearance of bias or prejudice. A judge must avoid conduct that may reasonably be perceived as prejudiced or biased.” Rule 2.3(A) plainly states that “a judge shall perform the duties of judicial office… without bias or prejudice.”

New Evidence and DNA Testing

Sometimes, even when all parties involved in a case are perfectly ethical and scrupulous, new information comes to light which no one could have anticipated. A new trial may be granted if new evidence arises following a conviction.

For example, Utah’s Postconviction Remedies Act allows any person who has been convicted of any felony to file a petition requesting DNA testing at any time they wish, as long as (1) the person is willing to assert their innocence under oath (since lying under oath is a crime, called perjury), and (2) certain standards established by Utah Code § 78B-9-301(2) are met. For instance, the person must be able to prove that the evidence in question has not been tampered with or altered in any significant way.

gavel on its side with american flag background

To request a new trial in Utah, under Rule 24(b), “A motion for a new trial shall be made in writing and upon notice. The motion shall be accompanied by affidavits or evidence of the essential facts in support of the motion.” Strict time limits also apply. Under Rule 24(c), “A motion for a new trial shall be made not later than 10 days after entry of the sentence,” unless there are special circumstances.

Finally, under Rule 24(d), “If a new trial is granted, the party shall be in the same position as if no trial had been held and the former verdict shall not be used or mentioned either in evidence or in argument.” Essentially, the trial is starting from scratch with a clean slate. The prosecutor is not allowed to note the guilty verdict from the original trial.

If someone you love was recently found guilty of committing a crime in Utah, it may be possible to challenge the conviction. To start discussing your legal matter in a free and completely confidential case evaluation, call criminal defense lawyer Darwin Overson at (801) 733-1308 today.