Exchange-Wrongly Convicted

In this Sept. 13 photo, Christopher Wickham speaks about his wrongful sexual assault conviction and story at the S.J. Quinney College of Law at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — It’s been 23 years since Christopher Wickham has seen the ocean, or taken a trip beyond Utah’s borders that lasted longer than a day or two.

He spent nearly 15 of those years at the Utah State Prison. And since his release in 2011, his travels have been restricted by rules he has to follow as a convicted sex offender.

But that’s all changing now.

With a judge’s signature on Tuesday, Wickham has been declared factually innocent of sexually abusing a 16-year-old girl more than two decades ago.

He’s already off the sex offender registry, and his criminal records has been cleared. And he’ll be paid more than $615,000 to make up for the time he lost while behind bars.

It’s a decision that has restored freedoms he hasn’t been able to enjoy for much of his life. He can take a long road trip with his wife. Maybe even get a passport and leave the country.

Days after his exoneration, Wickham says he’s preparing for a long vacation.

“I already told my boss,” he said. “We’re going somewhere.”

Wickham has worked for years to clear his name, a journey that has been at times frustrating for the 50-year-old Utahn. But even after spending year after year in a prison cell, Wickham said he never lost hope.

And this week, 3rd District Judge Royal Hansen signed the order, marking the end of a long road for Wickham. He’s officially an innocent man.

“It’s surreal,” he said. “It’s like, finally, the other end of what you’ve been waiting for. Of course, you hope it would never take that long. But at least it happened.”

It was Wickham’s 27th birthday on Dec. 29, 1995.

He was planning to have a few friends over to his Salt Lake County duplex to celebrate, and he had invited some people he had met at the mall the day before. Some were young teens, runaways who didn’t have a place to stay. Wickham offered up his place for the night.

“In the whole group I hung out with, we tend to look out for each other,” he said. “Because we’ve been through stuff, where you’re stuck out in the cold. You wouldn’t want to let someone else do that.”

It’s a decision that Wickham questions now.

Among that group was a 16-year-old girl who had run away from a youth residential treatment center. Her accusation would later define Wickham’s life for years to come. But that night, Wickham saw no sign of trouble. The only bad thing that happened, as far as he knew, occurred after he had left his own party. He was in a carload of people when his friend drove into a light pole. Wickham wasn’t wearing a seatbelt, and his face smashed against the windshield.

After the crash, they went back to Wickham’s home briefly, before realizing he needed more medical help. He spent the rest of the night at a hospital.

So when a detective contacted him weeks later, he thought it was about the car crash. But she was investigating something much more serious: The 16-year-old girl had accused Wickham and another man, Robert Daniel Pliego, of holding her down as they took turns having sex with her.

“I said, ‘Are you kidding me?’” he recalled. “There’s no way. I said I wasn’t there. I said I was at the hospital.”

But he was arrested weeks later, handcuffed by the police as he was walking to the store with his young daughter perched on his shoulders.

“That was terrible,” he said.

But Wickham had faith in the justice system. He knew this was just a misunderstanding. But then came his trial, where the teen girl testified in graphic detail about how Wickham and Pliego had assaulted her.

Wickham remembers being somewhat confused as he listened to her testimony. He wondered if maybe she had been abused at his home by two men, but she was mistaken that it was him.

Wickham had tracked down his medical records showing he was in the hospital, but his attorney didn’t present them to the jury at trial. And he didn’t testify on his own behalf on the advice of this attorney.

After deliberating for an hour or so, the jury found him guilty. He later was sentenced to a 20-year-to-life prison term.

“I almost couldn’t believe it,” he said. “It’s like it’s not real.”

When he first went to prison, Wickham just felt numb. He missed his daughter, who was his world. But as the years stretched on, he went to school and learned carpentry. He went to church, and tried to keep a positive outlook.

And during all of this, Wickham maintained his innocence and fought for his release.

It would take nearly 15 years before an attorney helped him get the parole board to look at his case and grant him a special hearing. A month after that review, he was let out.

But his battle to prove his innocence continued. And in 2014, the Rocky Mountain Innocence Center took his case.

Attorney Jennifer Springer said her organization had started with solid documentation proving Wickham’s innocence. There were his medical records, and Pliego had written a statement saying he was the only person who had sex with the teen that night.

But in order to file a petition asking for Wickham to be found factually innocent, Wickham needed new evidence. All they had at that point was information already available when Wickham went to trial all those years ago.

But there were two other people who had been in the car with Wickham that night who could confirm his alibi. Wickham didn’t know their names — they were just runaways.

But Pliego’s attorney had previously found out who they were, and Springer was able to find their names in old court records.

“It was incredible,” she said. “We found them. They were still in the Salt Lake Valley. We spoke to them and they were thrilled to help out Mr. Wickham.”

Wickham’s factual innocence petition was then filed in 2018. And the Utah attorney general’s office did not dispute the case, agreeing in court papers filed recently that Wickham was innocent and entitled to $615,960.

But even after the judge signed the order Tuesday, it didn’t really sink in for Wickham. It wasn’t until he saw his story on the news that it became real.

Wickham said he still plans to continue his work with a local company that sells tools. He’s always had an interest in woodwork, and he picked up more carpentry skills in prison.

But now he’ll be able to work and live as an exonerated man — something that, despite the odds, he felt like always would happen. Even after more than a decade in prison, he says, he never lost that hope.

“It’s a little frustrating,” he said. “You just do the best you can. Just keep hope. I just knew, eventually, we would get this corrected.”

Wickham is the sixth person in Utah to be exonerated under a state law enacted in 2008 that allows convictions to be reconsidered based on new evidence.

A week ago, a judge signed an order finding another Utah man, David Hawkins, innocent of sexually abusing his sons when they were children. Hawkins’ children have since recanted their allegations, saying they made up lies because they were upset at the way they were treated at home and how their father disciplined them. Hawkins will be paid more than $350,000 for the more than seven years he spent incarcerated.

Though Wickham’s and Hawkins’ petitions were granted close in time to each other, being found factually innocent in Utah is rare.