SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4 Utah) – Chris Wickham knew he was an innocent man.
But for more than two decades the legal system didn’t believe him. From the time he entered prison Wickham set out to prove the system wrong. This week and nearly 22 years later, a judge exonerated him of the crime.
“Oh I was excited,” Wickham told ABC4 News. “It’s a long time coming.”
But it was never easy.
In 1995, he was arrested for aggravated sexual assault involving an underage female. He recalled meeting police for the first time after the incident.
“(Police) finally came out, straight out and said it,” Wickham said. “And I’m looking at her and said ‘are you kidding me?'”
But it was no joke. He tried telling police that he was being treated at the hospital that night. Wickham was with a friend who ran the vehicle into a pole.
Hospital records confirmed Wickham was there from 2 a.m until 6 a.m.
But he was still charged and convicted.
During the trial, his attorney failed to show the hospital records nor present witnesses. He was asked about those witnesses.
“That’s a good question,” he answered. “There was none brought by my attorney. His main strategy was to get a plea bargain. I refused it.”
There was no DNA evidence because the alleged victim didn’t report the incident until several weeks later.
The state relied on testimony from her and Robert Pliego. Pliego was also facing charging of having sex with the same female. He plea-bargained and got a reduced charge.
Wickham befriended Pliego that night by letting him stay at his place.
“It’s wintertime,” he said. “It’s cold I didn’t want to see him out in the snow.”
Pliego paid him back by lying to the jury.
He was facing a minimum of 20 years to life in prison.
“You’re kind of in shock almost,” he said. “It’s kind of surreal. It doesn’t sink in for a while.”
Instead of falling into despair, Wickham said he set out to prove his innocence and take advantage of what the prison had to offer. He took advantage of education opportunities and honed his skills including carpentry. But it was his religion that kept him focused.
“I had my faith,” he said. “My trust in God that he would help me through it in which he did.”
He spent the next 14 and a half years in prison filing appeals with the courts. He wrote his first appeal without an attorney and won. A new trial was ordered.
“That was kind of hopeful that someone had seen that something was not right with the case,” he said.
But there was never a new trial. That ruling was reversed and Wickham remained locked up until 2011 when he was paroled.
By then, attorney Roger Scowcroft started helping Wickham. In fact, it was Scowcroft who convinced the Utah Board of Pardons that Wickham may be an innocent man and he was released.
Last year the Rocky Mountain Innocence Center took over the case and set out to clear his name. They submitted affidavits detailing Wickham’s alibi. Hospital records were obtained and showed he was indeed in the emergency room that night of the crime.
The non-profit group also found witnesses who vouched for Wickham.
“Trial counsel didn’t understand how important all this evidence was because (the attorney) was not provided records,” said Jennifer Springer with the innocence center.
From the outset, Wickham made it clear that his original attorney didn’t do his job.
Monday and after 22 years, a judge signed the order that exonerated Wickham.
“Oh, I was excited,” he said. “It’s a long time coming.
He said clearing his name will make his life much easier. Wickham’s picture and address were listed on the Utah sex offender registry. His criminal history was also posted for the public to see. All that has now been expunged.
As for his accusers, Wickham said he’s moved past that.
“I’ve come to terms with that and I’ve forgiven people,” he said. “I tried to move on. My frustration is that the state could have corrected this multiple times and didn’t.”