Utah Supreme Court hears Ogden teen's armed-robbery conviction appeal

Chief Justice Matthew Durrant, center, asks a question as Associate Chief Justice Thomas Lee, left, and Justice Deno Himonas listen, during the oral arguments of State v. Van Huizen on Monday, March 19, 2018, in Logan. The Utah Supreme Court traveled to Utah State University to hear arguments in two cases followed by a Q&A with those in attendance.

SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Supreme Court reinstated the armed robbery conviction of an Ogden 16-year-old who was tried as an adult and sent to prison.

Despite the ruling Monday, Cooper Van Huizen, now 21, likely will not spend any more time in prison — the Utah Board of Pardons and Parole released him after he served six months at the state prison in 2014.

A Utah Court of Appeals ruling in 2017 overturned Van Huizen’s conviction because the juvenile court judge who ordered him to stand trial as an adult had not disclosed that her husband was chief criminal prosecutor in the Weber County Attorney’s Office.

However, the Supreme Court opinion said that while Judge Michelle Heward should have disclosed the possible conflict of interest, Van Huizen’s lawyers failed to establish that Heward’s omission was sufficient to invalidate the conviction.

Cooper Van Huizen gets out of prison

Cooper Van Huizen, 17, right, chats with his friend Carson Bexell, 17, left, and his parents Marc Van Huizen, 54, and Mindy Van Huizen, 44, over lunch at Big Z restaurant in West Haven after he was released from prison in November 2014.

Van Huizen was the youngest of a group of five that barged into a Roy home Nov. 4, 2013, and robbed the occupants of cash, a cellphone and marijuana, court records said. He did not orchestrate the robbery, 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 said.

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 sentenced the teen to 1 to 15 years in prison on two second-degree felony aggravated robbery charges.

Cooper Van Huizen booking mug

Cooper Van Huizen's booking mugshot in 2014, when he was 16.

The parole board 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.

Monday’s ruling puts the conviction back on his record.

“He’s not going to go back to do more prison,” Weber County Attorney Chris Allred said Wednesday. “He’s done his time.”

Van Huizen’s appeal attorney, Elizabeth Hunt, said Heward should have recused herself from handling the decision on whether Van Huizen should have been tried in adult court or kept in juvenile court.

The Appeals Court ruled that Heward’s undisclosed marriage to a top attorney in the prosecuting county attorney’s office created an appearance of partiality.

It concluded that the usual rules of procedural preservation “did not apply to this claim because the judge had not disclosed the relationship on the record and therefore Van Huizen did not know about it and could not have raised it.”

The Supreme Court said, “We agree that judges are obligated to disclose facts relevant to disqualification. But when a litigant alleges undisclosed judicial bias for the first time on appeal, such a claim is not immune” from court procedural preservation rules.

“Indeed, no matter what the result (of the hearing handled by Heward), Van Huizen would have still been subject to a criminal trial in juvenile court and a conviction could have been obtained there,” the Supreme Court said.

The opinion added, there is no evidence Heward’s husband had more than an inconsequential interest in the outcome of the proceedings in juvenile court.

Efforts to contact Hunt were not immediately successful Wednesday.

You can reach reporter Mark Shenefelt at mshenefelt@standard.net or 801 625-4224. Follow him on Twitter at @mshenefelt.

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