Utah Supreme Court overturns Uintah County man's sex abuse conviction
A Uintah County man serving prison time for molesting a child will get another chance to beat the rap after the Utah Supreme Court overturned his conviction Friday.
In a 12-page decision, the court vacated the conviction of Anthony Watkins, 44, whom a jury found guilty of aggravated sexual abuse of a child in 2009. The decision states that prosecutors did not adequately prove that Watkins' case warranted "aggravated" status.
Watkins' attorney Jamie Pluene said that adding the word "aggravated" to the charge elevates its severity and leads to a more severe penalty. The decision means that Watkins case goes back to the district court in Vernal for another hearing.
Watkins is serving 10 years to life in prison.
Pleune praised the decision Friday and anticipated that Watkins would also be pleased. Pleune added that Watkins had argued he was innocent of the charge he faced and that the Supreme Court decision supports that assertion.
Assistant Attorney General Jeanne Inouye said Friday that she was disappointed by the decision. She added that the justices opted for an interpretation of Utah law that differs from the one used by the Utah Court of Appeals.
Watkins' case began in September 2008 when he temporarily moved into a family's spare bedroom. While living with the family, the children, whom he watched at least once, were told to call him "Uncle Tony."
According to court documents, the victim said that in October, Watkins kissed her and was "kind of pinching [her] butt." He later reportedly paid the girl $100 "and told [her] not to tell anybody," court documents add.
At the end of Watkins' trial in July 2009, his attorneys asked the judge to dismiss the case, arguing that prosecutors never proved Watkins committed "aggravated" sexual abuse of a child. The judge rejected the request, but the Supreme Court later took up the issue.
The Supreme Court decision focuses on the issue of "undue influence." In order to include the word "aggravated" in a sexual-abuse charge, prosecutors must prove a defendant was both in a position of authority and could exercise undue influence over the victim.
Utah law includes a list of "positions of authority." The list includes things like schoolteachers, scout leaders and doctors. It also includes an "adult cohabitant of a parent," which prosecutors argued applied to Watkins. The justices didn't contest the idea that Watkins met that description and therefore had a position of authority.
Instead, the court said that being in a position of authority doesn't automatically result in the ability to exercise undue influence. The Supreme Court decision will change the way prosecutors approach cases, requiring them to prove defendants had both authority and undue influence.
In Watkins' case, the decision means prosecutors only did half of what they needed to obtain a conviction.
"Because the lower courts did not require the state to establish both elements, we vacate Mr. Watkins' conviction and remand for further proceedings," the decision states.
Neither Pluene nor Inouye knew exactly what would come next beyond a hearing in Uintah County.