College of Law Alumna Pushes Exoneration Bill Through Legislature

by Marty Stolz

A recently-passed Utah statute that provides compensation for prisoners who have been wrongfully convicted and exonerated had its origin in an academic paper by a former S.J. Quinney College of Law student.

Heather Harris, a 2006 College of Law graduate, took Professor Daniel Medwed’s Wrongful Conviction Seminar in the Spring of 2005.

“Throughout the class, I got inspired, I got angry, and honestly, I got emotional,” Harris says. “I could not believe how these individuals are treated by the public after they were exonerated, much less how they were treated while trying to prove their innocence.  So, to be blunt, rather than just talking about it and whining about it, I decided to see if I could do my part in trying to change it.” 

Along with her term paper for the seminar, Harris drafted a model exoneration statute, which she later sent to every Utah legislator.  Harris’s persistence captured the attention of legislators, who pushed the bill during the 2006 Legislative Session.

As with new ideas, though, the notion of compensating the wrongfully-convicted took time to gain traction. In the interim, Harris refined the proposal with Medwed, a team from the Utah Attorney General’s Office and others. The group found that the most compelling case for compensation was economic; exonerees in other states have won far larger judgments using traditional tort claims. So the statute serves Utah as an “insurance” policy against massive damage awards, Harris said.

The Exoneration and Innocence Assistance statute provides a two-step procedure. First, it establishes a process for post-conviction petitions before judges, easing what had often been an impediment.  Second, those found to be “factually innocent” by clear and convincing evidence — such as DNA test results or non-DNA evidence, a major innovation in such compensation laws — are provided financial payment for up to 15 years of the incarceration, based on the average annual wages of Utah workers.

According to Medwed, Harris deserves much of the credit for spearheading the passage of the legislation.

“She lobbied the legislature and cobbled together a bipartisan consortium of prosecutors, defense lawyers, and academics to fine-tune the drafting of the legislation,” he said.  “It is not farfetched to suggest that her work resulted in one of the more equitable wrongful conviction compensation statutes in the country.” 

Harris practices criminal defense law in Salt Lake City with attorney Scott C. Williams.