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Christopher Wickham

Other Utah Exonerations
Just before Christmas in 1995, a 16-year-old girl known as B.H. ran away from a residential treatment center in Salt Lake City, Utah. On December 28, she was with Daniel Pliego and Christopher Howe at the Crossroads Mall in downtown Salt Lake City, when the group ran into 27-year-old Christopher Wickham, who knew Pliego. It was Wickham’s birthday. He was throwing a party that night, and he invited them to come.

B.H. and the others arrived at Wickham’s in the early evening. At around 9 p.m., Wickham, a friend he knew only as AJ, and two teenaged runaways who were staying at Wickham’s, left to get some food. They went to a supermarket and then drove around a bit. They stopped to do “doughnuts” in an icy parking lot, and AJ hit a light pole. Wickham was in the passenger seat, and he banged his head and was bleeding. Instead of going to the hospital, they abandoned the car, which was stolen, stole another, and then drove back to Wickham’s house, arriving around 1:30 a.m. on December 29. About a half hour later, Andersen and Wickham left for Pioneer Valley Hospital, which was about 10 miles away. Wickham was checked into the emergency room at 2:23. Because neither man wanted to admit that Wickham’s injuries occurred while they were in a stolen car, they told the healthcare workers that they had been assaulted, and they were interviewed by sheriff’s deputies around 4 a.m.

At the party, B.H. had become drunk. She would later testify that she had gotten into a fight with some other young women that left her with a dislocated shoulder and other bruising. She would remember Wickham and the others leaving for the hospital. Shortly after that, she said, she and Pliego went into Wickham’s bedroom, which was almost completely dark, and began kissing. She said she asked him to leave, and he did. But he soon returned. B.H. would testify that Pliego called out “Chris” and that Wickham, who she said was “apparently” back from the hospital, then entered the room and that the two men took turns raping her. The men then got dressed and left. In the morning, B.H. called her sister to come pick her up, but did not tell her about what she would later say had happened. She was placed in a juvenile detention facility for a week, then moved back to the residential treatment center. Five weeks later, on February 21, 1996, when there was a plan in motion to return B.H. to the juvenile detention center, she told a therapist that she had been raped.

The Salt Lake City police investigated the case. Detective Heather Stringfellow interviewed Wickham on February 22. At first, he did not recall B.H. being at the party, which had been two months earlier. But a few hours later, he called Stringfellow back. He did remember a young woman fitting B.H.’s description. In subsequent interviews, he would deny having sex with B.H., but also state that it was likely that Pliego had consensual sex with her. In separate photo line-ups, B.H. picked Wickham and Pliego as the two men whom she said sexually assaulted her. Stringfellow would later testify that Wickham was cooperative with every part of her investigation.

Wickham was arrested on July 15, 1996 and charged with two counts of first-degree sexual assault. Pliego, who was never interviewed by Stringfellow, was also charged with the same crimes. But he had fled the state.

Wickham’s trial in Utah’s Third Judicial District Court began January 28, 1997. His attorney was Paul Quinlan. Wickham told Quinlan about his alibi and the trip to the emergency room, and asked him to get Pliego and AJ (whose real name was Anthony Andersen) to testify on his behalf. Quinlan did get Wickham’s hospital records, but he did not introduce them at trial, believing that the timeline of the sexual assault was too vague to establish a clear alibi. The attorney also didn’t try to obtain any of B.H.’s records from the residential treatment center or the juvenile detention center.

B.H. was the state’s principal witness. She described her account of the sexual assault. Her sister also testified and said that B.H. had told her about the alleged sexual assault several days after the party, when she was having vaginal bleeding. But the sisters didn’t contact law enforcement or seek immediate medical treatment.

In his cross-examination of B.H., Quinlan attempted to suggest that B.H. had been mistaken in her identification, that it was Christopher Howe, not Christopher Wickham, who was the “Chris” that B.H. said assaulted her. Quinlan’s only witness was a nurse at a clinic who treated B.H. three times, on January 23, January 30 and February 20, 1996, for abdominal pain and vaginal discharge, burning, and itching. The nurse said B.H. never mentioned anything about a sexual assault and said that the girl told her that she hadn’t been sexually active since October 1995.

The jury convicted Wickham of both counts on January 29, 1997. He was later sentenced to two consecutive terms of 10 years to life in prison. Pliego would plead guilty in 1999 to a single count of unlawful sexual intercourse and served three years in prison.

Wickham would later say that he immediately asked Quinlan to file a motion for a new trial. But Quinlan didn’t do that. He would later state that he didn’t believe Wickham had made the request but also that he didn’t see a viable legal avenue for an appeal. When Wickham found out that a motion hadn’t been filed, he filed his own pro se motion, alleging ineffective assistance of counsel based on Quinlan’s failure to interview key witnesses. An attorney later amended the petition, producing affidavits from Andersen and Pliego supporting Wickham’s alibi. The attorney also sought B.H.’s medical and treatment records. The healthcare and counseling providers fought the requests, but the court required them to comply.

Those records showed that B.H. had a history of alleging sexual assault. In one report, she had claimed to have been repeatedly raped by her father and her brother. In another, she said she had been sexually assaulted by a relative of her foster father. No charges were filed in either instance.

An evidentiary hearing was held on July 11, 2000. Quinlan testified that he had known Pliego was in Washington State, awaiting extradition, but he made no attempt to contact or subpoena him. Quinlan said that neither he nor his investigator had been able to locate Andersen, but it turned out that he had been in the Salt Lake County jail and then a state prison in Utah.

Pliego testified that he had met B.H. on December 28 and that he thought she was 19 years old. He said the sex was consensual and that neither Wickham, Howe nor anybody else was present during that time period. Andersen testified that he and Wickham had returned to the house at around 1:30 a.m., stayed for 30 minutes or so and then left for the hospital. He said they got back around 6 a.m., and he saw Pliego and B.H. cuddling on the couch. Andersen said he was with Wickham the whole night, and that Wickham didn’t have sex with B.H. or assault her.

On July 31, 2000, Judge J. Dennis Frederick of the Third Judicial District Court vacated Wickham’s conviction. He said that B.H.’s medical records constituted newly discovered evidence under Utah’s post-conviction relief statute. He did not rule on whether Andersen’s or Pliego’s statements were new evidence. The state appealed, and the Utah Supreme Court reversed the district court on July 26, 2002. It said that the medical records didn’t qualify as newly discovered evidence because they merely served to impeach B.H. It also went a step further, noting that Pliego’s statements did not qualify either, because Quinlan had made a tactical decision not to subpoena Pliego as a witness. Andersen’s testimony, the court ruled, was newly discovered evidence, but not sufficient to warrant a new trial.

Wickham filed a pro se motion for a writ of habeas corpus in U.S. District Court. It was denied, as were his appeals in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit.

Wickham was paroled from prison on May 3, 2011, after Utah’s Board of Pardon and Paroles said there was a “decent possibility of actual innocence.”

Two years later, his conviction was commuted to two counts of unlawful sexual assault with a 16- or 17-year-old, both of which were third degree felonies. The board of pardons had also ordered that Wickham be removed from the state’s sex-offender registry, but a district court ruling barred that action.

After the commutation, Wickham asked the Rocky Mountain Innocence Center and to investigate his claim of innocence. As part of the investigation, the center was able to locate the two runaways, Jessica and Joshua Pugeau, who had been in the car with Andersen and Wickham when they crashed into the light pole. Their names had been on a list of potential witnesses in Pliego’s case, but the Pugeaus were not called to testify because Pliego’s case didn’t go to trial. Their affidavits supported Wickham’s alibi of going to the hospital and the extent of his injuries.

When Wickham’s appellate attorney had received B.H.’s medical and treatment records, the documents contained a police report that had wound up in those files. In that report, dated February 29, 1996, B.H. said that the assault had taken place at 2 a.m., after Wickham had returned from the hospital (She had testified that she was unsure about the time.). But Wickham was at the hospital from 2:23 to around 4:40 a.m. Wickham’s appellate attorney had either missed the document because of the amount of evidence he had to sift through, or had not realized its importance because it was not part of any other police report.

Wickham’s attorneys filed a motion on July 13, 2018 to have Wickham declared factually innocent. Along with the statements from the Pugeau siblings and the police report, the filing also said that Wickham had broken his hand on December 12, 1995 and was wearing a hard cast on his hand and wrist. His attorneys said that it would have been impossible for Wickham to restrain B.H. in the manner in which she claimed and that nowhere in her testimony did she ever mention anything about a cast, which would have been all but impossible to miss.

The Utah Attorney General’s Office did not oppose Wickham’s petition, and Judge Royal Hansen of the Sixth District Judicial Court approved an order of factual innocence on September 9, 2019. The state agreed to pay Wickham $615,960 and removed him from the state’s sex-offender registry. In addition, the order barred Wickham and his attorneys from making any statements that impugned the integrity or motives of B.H. or suggested that she was lying. The state, for its part, was prohibited from making any statements suggesting Wickham wasn’t factually innocent.

– Ken Otterbourg

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Posting Date: 10/2/2019
County:Salt Lake
Most Serious Crime:Sexual Assault
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:1995
Sentence:20 to life
Age at the date of reported crime:27
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No