Utah Supreme Court to hear state's appeal in juvenile Roy armed robbery case

Friday , August 04, 2017 - 3:13 PM

MARK SHENEFELT, Standard-Examiner Staff

SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Supreme Court has agreed to hear the state’s effort to revive the prosecution of a 16-year-old who was sent to the Utah State Prison for armed robbery but paroled six months later.

The Utah Attorney General’s Office is appealing the state Courts of Appeals’ ruling in February that said Cooper Van Huizen, now 20, of Weber County, was improperly ordered to stand trial in adult court rather than juvenile court.

RELATED: Appeals court overturns Ogden judge's ruling that put teen on trial as an adult

Van Huizen was the youngest of four teens who barged into a Roy home Nov. 4, 2013, and robbed the occupants of cash, a cellphone and marijuana, court records say. He did not orchestrate the robbery or wield a gun in it, but he deserved to spend time in prison because he supplied the guns from his family’s home, and the victims feared for their lives, 2nd District Judge Ernie Jones ruled.

Van Huizen got the harshest prison sentence of the five suspects, which sparked debate about prosecuting juveniles in Utah’s adult courts.

After a plea bargain, Jones on March 19, 2014, sentenced the teen to one to 15 years in prison on two second-degree felony aggravated robbery charges.

The Utah Board of Pardons and Parole granted Van Huizen parole after six months, an unusually early release on such a conviction. And partially in response to public outcry over Van Huizen’s case, the Utah Legislature in 2015 passed Senate Bill 167, making it harder for prosecutors to push some juvenile cases into adult court.

Van Huizen’s attorney appealed the conviction, and the Court of Appeals determined that 2nd District Juvenile Court Judge Michelle Heward should have stepped aside from hearing Van Huizen’s case because her husband took part in the prosecution. Heward ordered that Van Huizen be tried in adult court.

Heward should have recused herself and handed the case to a different judge, the appeals court ruled.

County attorneys argued Heward’s husband’s involvement in the case was not large and the conflict did not meet provisions of the Utah Code of Judicial Conduct requiring a recusal.

But, quoting the code, the Appeals Court opinion said, “A judge should act at all times in a manner that promotes — and shall not undermine — public confidence in the independence, integrity and impartiality of the judiciary and shall avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety.”

Specifically, it said, a “judge shall disqualify himself or herself in any proceeding in which the judge’s impartiality might reasonably be questioned.” The code defines “impartial” to mean, the court said, the “absence of bias or prejudice in favor of, or against, particular parties or classes of parties, as well as presence of an objective and open mind in considering matters that come before a judge.”

Weber County Attorney Chris Allred in February said after that ruling, “In general terms we feel strongly that the decision ultimately is incorrect, and that the basis for overturning the lower court is in error.”

The result of the ruling, Allred said, is that “now we have to go back and go through the process to certify him as an adult again.” 

In its July 5 order agreeing to hear the state’s appeal, the Supreme Court has set an Aug. 21 deadline for the parties to file briefs in advance of oral arguments.

Attorney general’s spokesman Dan Burton and Elizabeth Hunt, Van Huizen’s attorney, declined to comment on the appeal Thursday.

You can reach reporter Mark Shenefelt at 801 625-4224 or mshenefelt@standard.net. Follow on Twitter at @mshenefelt and Facebook at www.facebook.com/SEmarkshenefelt.

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