Utah man vindicated after serving 15 years for child sexual abuse
Kevin Peterson's case is full of contradictions.
He did it. He didn't do it. Then he did. But just days before his 55th birthday in late December, Peterson, who finished serving a 15-year sentence for the alleged crime in 2007, was cleared unequivocally of all wrongdoing after his kids recanted their allegations that he sexually abused them.
While four people have been declared factually innocent since Utah's law went into effect in May 2008, Peterson's finding is only the second case uncontested by the state.
A factual innocence ruling by the court declares a convicted person did not engage in the conduct for which they were found guilty due to new or changing evidence. DNA evidence can be used, but is not required, to prove factual innocence.
But by the time he was cleared, the Weber County resident had already served 15 years in prison the entirety of his sentence and was required to register as a sex offender.
Peterson, who now works as a truck driver, declined to comment through one of his attorneys, Jason Richards, who represented him on the innocence case.
"It's just a tragic case," Richards. "[It] just took forever for him to be vindicated.
"He's an upright, good person," Richards said. "He just got an extremely bad break. Everything just lined up against him."
Peterson accused • In 1990, the then-32-year-old Peterson was involved in a contentious custody battle over his 5-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son.
The courts had granted him preliminary custody until allegations surfaced that he had sexually abused both children and his then-stepdaughter, Richards said.
"Then the police showed up and took his kids away and arrested him," Richards said.
The courts stripped him of custody, which Richards said was the intent of the children's mother.
He was forced to sit in court and listen as his young son testified against him during a preliminary hearing. State records indicate his daughter was so hysterical she couldn't take the stand.
After listening to his child, Peterson thought: " 'I don't got a chance in hell.' So that's why he [pleaded]," Richards said, noting his client was facing a prison sentence of five years to life if convicted of a first-degree felony.
Peterson pleaded guilty to a lesser second-degree felony count of sexual abuse of a child and was sentenced to 36 months probation. As part of that plea, he was required to complete sex-offender treatment.
But buried deep in the plea agreement papers at the time was a unique caveat: "I did not sexually abuse [my son]. However, after being fully advised as to the consequences of my decision by my attorney, I want to plead guilty to the second-degree felony."
Punishment is tempered with mercy in treatment programs, but only if the person accepts personal responsibility for their actions, said Scott Reed, division chief of the criminal justice division of the Utah attorney general's office, who represented the state in legal proceedings.
"It's tragic in that respect," Reed said.
Tragic because that was the point when the problems arose, Richards said.
"Once he had pleaded guilty without admitting guilt, he was kind of stuck," Richards said. "He couldn't very well go back and change his mind after the appeal time had run."
Richards said Peterson was required to admit to the sexual abuse and write in detail what he had done to the children.
"He wasn't going to stay out of prison unless he admitted and wrote down stuff," Richard said. "He had no idea what to do or what to say."
Richards said Peterson had people in his therapy group who had committed the sex offenses help him write up a plausible description.
But treatment counselors were unhappy with Peterson's failure to admit to the sexual abuse, so they sought to revoke his probation. He was sent to prison for 15 years, serving every single day of that sentence. He was released Nov. 8, 2007.
"He wasn't willing to [admit wrongdoing] because he didn't do anything," Richards said. "So, yeah, he served every day of those 15 years."
No parole • Peterson likely didn't help his case, though, at his first parole hearing in November 1993.
When confronted by parole hearing officer Curtis Garner, Peterson acknowledged that he had molested his children for 18 months to two years by touching and rubbing the vaginal area of his daughter and by having his son rub his genital area, according to tapes of the hearing obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune through an open records request.
Richards said he didn't know for sure why Peterson admitted to the offense, but said it was likely because his client was desperate to get out and believed simply admitting guilt would sway the parole board.
"Prison is a hellish place to be," Richards said. "I bet if you talk to a lot of people there, they'd pretty much say anything to get out of there. He'd go back and forth because he was scared."
Law enforcement also reported to the parole board that Peterson was in total denial and laying "guilt trips" on the children for making accusations against him.
Then there were conflicting reports from two psychologists who disagreed about the likelihood of Peterson re-offending upon release, coupled with his apparent refusal to participate in prison treatment.
"The board has a pretty hard position on people who refuse to become involved in sex therapy that's available here," Garner told Peterson. "I mean you basically have to satisfy us that you're no longer a risk to re-offend before we're willing to vote to get you out. And when you fail the program that's provided you as a condition of probation, that doesn't speak very well of your likelihood of success."
Garner warned Peterson to take a good look at his 2007 sentence expiration date "because that's the date you're facing if you don't do some good programming."
"I'm not encouraged by what I'm hearing here today," Garner added.
Parts of the 1993 hearing tapes are inaudible and all of the 1995 rehearing was inaudible, although paperwork pertaining to the 1995 hearing indicated that the parole board found that Peterson had no remorse or apparent motivation to rehabilitate by his "refusal to participate in available sex offender treatment, which he needs" and his refusal to submit to another psychological evaluation.
"It's a compelling thing to be willing to stay in prison when you could just get out and say you did it," Richards said.
It was only after Peterson was released that his son and daughter came forward and recanted.
His now-adult son wept as he explained to officials that he had lied.
Despite being framed, Peterson holds no ill will toward his children. "[Peterson] honestly doesn't blame them at all because they were so little," Richards said.
Wrongful conviction • Reed said many factual innocence cases involving DNA evidence are pretty straightforward. But then there are cases like Peterson's, in which a victim comes forward years later and recants, which raises the question of whether to believe the victim now or then.
"I think it takes a certain amount of courage even as an adult to come forward," Reed said.
But Reed said the state did everything it could to ensure Peterson got a fair shake from the start and there was no misconduct or coercion on its part. They had the evidence including the compelling testimony of Peterson's own son.
"They didn't do anything wrong," Reed said. "It's just a sad situation."
He also noted there were some weird aspects to the case, including the fact that Peterson pleaded guilty.
"You can't waver from it. You can't compromise," he said of a defendant's insistence on being innocent. "The guy pleaded guilty. Got probation. He had the keys to the jailhouse in his hands. Then he got obstinate and refused to cooperate with sex-offender treatment."
But Reed said he personally is more convinced of innocence in this case than in some of the 14 other factual-innocence petitions that have been filed in Utah since 2008.
"He just wanted to clear his name," Reed said, noting the state could help accomplish his objective and do it in such a way that it didn't incur excessive financial liability to taxpayers.
Peterson's wrongful conviction cost Utah taxpayers $70,000 as part of a settlement that was sealed until The Tribune filed a motion seeking to make the agreement public. Earlier this month, the document was unsealed. As part of the settlement, Peterson's record was expunged and he is no longer required to register as a sex offender.
Now that he's been cleared, Richards said his client is focused on moving forward with his life.
"Kevin is really resilient," Richards said.
Defendants cleared under Utah's factual innocence bill
Debra Brown* • Served 17 years in prison for a 1993 shooting death of Lael Brown in Logan. Awarded more than $500,000.
Jed Gressman* • Served three years in prison for an aggravated sexual assault before being cleared by DNA evidence of the crime. Awarded $220,000.
Harry Miller • Served 4 1/2 years in prison for a robbery he didn't commit. Awarded an estimated $120,000.
Kevin Peterson • Served 15 years in prison for a sex abuse of a child. Awarded $70,000.
* State is appealing factual innocence finding.