Justice and Due Process

Douglas Carter and Integrity

In 1985, fifty-seven-year-old Eva Oleson was knitting a sweater for her son when someone entered her home and stabbed her multiple times in the back, neck, and abdomen before shooting her in the head. Her husband was the one to find her body. 

Douglas Stewart Carter was convicted of her murder later that year. Carter’s conviction was based on his own confession, testimony from his wife, testimony from Epifanio and Lucia Tovar, Carter’s bloodstained clothes, and ammunition found in Carter’s home that matched the bullet used to kill Eva.

The conviction hasn’t brought closure to Eva’s family. In the thirty-seven years since, Carter has filed numerous appeals. In the most recent appeal, he argued that police paid the Tovars’ rent and utilities in the months preceding the trial and this was never disclosed to defense. Moreover, the Tovars testified they only received fourteen dollars in benefits from the police, and the prosecutor failed to correct this lie. The appeal also alleges that police told the Tovars to testify that Carter intended to “rape, break, and drive.” The Tovars now say the police told them to use this particular phrase and the prosecutor knew about this coaching but failed to correct their testimony. The Tovars still maintain Carter confessed to the murder, but he didn’t use that particular phrasing. 

For Carter’s conviction to be overturned, the court must find not only that evidence was not disclosed, but that the outcome would have been different if it had been. Judge Pullan found that this standard was met. The State of Utah will appeal this decision, likely arguing that given the strength of other evidence against Carter, including his own confession, the additional evidence wouldn’t have made a difference.

If the appellate court upholds Judge Pullan’s ruling, Carter will get a new trial, and the State will have the herculean task of taking his case to trial again, but this time with memories and evidence that are thirty-seven years stale. 

Many lessons could be drawn from this case: It was easier to get a trial back in the day — Carter was convicted less than a year after the crime. Death penalty cases are appealed ad infinitum at great cost to taxpayers — Carter’s case has been almost continuously before the courts for the last thirty-seven years. But perhaps the one that hits closest to home for me, as a former prosecutor, is the imperative need for integrity, especially in high-stakes cases. 

If police believed they needed to pay the Tolvars’ rent to keep them from returning to their native Mexico, so be it. But they should have been up front about it and forestalled the need to relitigate the case almost four decades later. Likewise for the prosecutor. Trials, especially murder trials, are complex with many moving parts to keep track of. But something this significant should have been on their radar. 

Victims deserve finality. A lot of that is out of our control: convicted murderers on death row have every incentive to fight their conviction indefinitely. But by doing the right thing up front, police and prosecutors can ensure convictions are the product of a just process and that they stick, even through all the appeals.

Defendants deserve to be convicted or acquitted based on presentation of all the evidence, both damning and exculpatory. And victims and their families deserve peace and closure, not reopening wounds and dredging up traumatic memories. Both interests are served when police and prosecutors act with integrity and transparency.