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Two immigrants, deported after wrongful convictions, could be reunited with families

A courtroom in Third District Court at the Matheson Courthouse in Salt Lake City, Utah. (FILE: KUTV)
A courtroom in Third District Court at the Matheson Courthouse in Salt Lake City, Utah. (FILE: KUTV)
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Two immigrants, both convicted about a decade ago in Utah courts, are now one step closer to returning to the United States.

Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill on Tuesday announced that he was working to overturn their convictions. Both men were 17 when they allegedly committed crimes. Their cases should have been handled in juvenile court, rather than adult court, Gill said.

“We have to pay attention to the details of our prosecutions because they have dire consequences and life-altering consequences,” Gill said.

Police arrested Mario Navarro for selling $20 worth of drugs to an undercover officer in 2010. He was 17 throughout the process, but an incorrect date of birth led everyone to believe he was 18 at the time.

Jose Barrera-Landa was convicted of having sex with a minor in 2010. He was 19 as his case was playing out in court.

“I think the error was when the charging document came through, that somebody said ‘he’s over 18, so he should be in the adult court,’ and it got filed over there,” Gill said.

The two men were deported because of the convictions.

Gill called correcting the problem a matter of “systemic integrity.”

The adult court did not have jurisdiction and therefore the convictions should be overturned, the district attorney said. His office has filed paperwork to vacate the convictions.

Federal public defender Benji McMurray, who represents Navarro and Barrera-Landa, took the cases to the county’s Conviction Integrity Unit. That group reviewed the details and made the recommendations to Gill.

“They have significant others and children who are here,” McMurray said, “and they would like very much to ultimately be able to return to the United States.”

McMurray is representing the men on immigration charges in federal court. Both are “ecstatic” about Tuesday’s announcement, particularly Barrera-Landa.

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“The ramifications of the particular conviction that he faced, a sex conviction, there’s a particular stigma associated with that,” McMurray said, “and now to finally have the chance to have that cleared up is a pretty significant thing.”

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