‘Trib Talk’: A Utah man is deemed factually innocent after serving time for child sexual abuse

(Rachel Molenda | Tribune file photo) David Hawkins is photographed at the Tribune offices in Salt Lake City on Aug. 2, 2018. Hawkins was convicted 12 years ago of sexually assaulting two of his sons, who now admit they lied about the abuse. With their recanted testimony, Hawkins was able to get his conviction overturned, expunged and was released from prison.

In 2006, David Hawkins was convicted of sexually abusing two of his sons. His name was added to the sex offender registry, and he went on to serve more than seven years in prison for a crime he said he did not commit.

Now, after his children recanted their testimonies against him and worked for six years to clear his name, the state of Utah has deemed Hawkins to be factually innocent and has expunged his record.

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On this week’s episode of the “Trib Talk” podcast, Hawkins joins host Benjamin Wood and Tribune legal affairs reporter Jessica Miller to share his experience of being wrongly convicted and ultimately vindicated in the eyes of the law.

A transcript of the conversation, edited for clarity and length, is included below. For the full interview, search for “Trib Talk” on SoundCloud, iTunes and Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Stitcher, Spotify and other major podcast platforms.

Benjamin Wood: David your story is fascinating, it’s tragic. You’ve been through an ordeal that I can’t even begin to understand. More than anything I’m wondering how you’re feeling right now. Your record has been cleared, the state has acknowledged, formally, that you are an innocent man. How are you doing?

David Hawkins: Ecstatic, elated. I mean, there aren’t any adjectives really to describe it — hopeful, optimistic. I feel fantastic. Truth finally prevailed. For years, I had so many doubts that the truth would come out. I lost faith in the system, lost faith in everything. But now it’s back. I’ve gained that confidence. Yeah, there’s a lot of damage. It’s going to take time to repair things, to heal, but I know it will happen.

BW: In a minute I’m going to get out of the way and let Jessica talk a bit about her reporting on the story. She’s been covering this case for quite some time now. But I wanted to also ask you about your sons. In one of Jessica’s stories you had said that you were proud of the courage it took for them to come forward and change their version of events. Their testimony was a critical piece of evidence — perhaps the critical piece of evidence — but it was also your sons advocating on your behalf that might have helped move things along. How is your relationship with your son’s today?

DH: It’s fantastic. It’s not 100 percent yet. It’s gonna be a process. We’re putting funds aside for the healing process of therapy, to get through the hurdles and so forth, to figure out why things happened the way they happened, what motivated them and where we go forward as a family. The most important thing is to put things in the past; forgive, let go.

I am proud of them. I don’t know what was going through their minds when they were coming forward. From what I heard through the grapevine, they were nervous and scared that maybe there’d be repercussions — maybe even that they would be charged themselves. So it really was a noble thing, I mean a great thing, for them to step up and say ‘Yeah, we lied’ after all these years. And I love them. I mean the love never stopped. The frustration and anger was there — the bitterness. But that goes away. It heals. And we’re just at a point now where we’re moving forward. It’s in the past. Let’s move forward and make things right as much as possible.

BW: Jessica, I’m hoping you can maybe take us back to the beginning. How was it that you first came across this story?

Jessica Miller: I first started reporting this story last July. David’s son Nathan had reached out. He had written an email to our newsroom email account where people send tips to. And he, basically, talked a little bit about his dad and what they had said and had just asked us if we would be willing to write a story.

He said that they had felt like their voice had been silent up to this point. They had been working for about five years prior to when Nathan reached out to me to try to get their dad’s conviction overturned. But they hadn’t really had much success. They had asked or there had been some effort to ask the parole board when he was in prison. They had asked the district attorney’s office for review. They did that and said the conviction was sound. I think they had even talked to some congressmen in the area.

They had been trying all these different ways to tell the truth and at that point they felt like no one had really been listening to them. So when they reached out to me and The Tribune, we decided that this is a really interesting story. This is something that probably happens more often than people would think — that people are falsely accused of crimes. That is something that does happen. And so we just started our reporting process. I interviewed David and all of his sons separately .... I went to the courthouse. I Looked at his trial transcript from there and then we just started writing stories.

BW: How quickly did it occur to you that this was a story? The general news tip account gets a lot of interesting tips. We love them, keep them coming, but when did it first kind of hit you that there’s a story here.

JM: Well it’s interesting because, like you said, honestly, I’m surprised I even got this email. Sometimes our newsroom account — we love the tips — but sometimes we’re not always good at getting them to the right reporter.

I was just really interested in this idea. I think a lot of people really think that there’s no way. If you were convicted in trial that’s it, you were guilty and that’s the end of it. In writing about criminal justice, writing about legal affairs, you work closely with these cases and you realize that’s not the case. And looking at this, it just was an interesting case of the question of a man’s innocence. And this does happen to people. People go to prison who didn’t commit crimes.

BW: What did the case look like? What did the evidence look like? What were the major steps along the way?

JM: The trial was in October 2007. Two of David’s children testified at the trial that they’d been sexually abused and that’s pretty much all the evidence that they had. There wasn’t DNA. There wasn’t any physical evidence that they had been abused. It was mostly just their testimony.

Two of David’s other children testified that they hadn’t been sexually abused and hadn’t seen that. But then the jury convicted him of those charges. There was a point where David hired a new attorney and there was talk about a second trial and then that’s when they offered this plea deal where he pled guilty to two second degree felonies and went to prison for a period between two years to 30 years. Utah has an indeterminate sentencing structure, so it’s up to the parole board how much time he actually spends in prison.

BW: Now David I apologize, I don’t mean to have [Jessica] tell your story, but I wanted to establish some of those points, particularly the plea deal post-conviction. As Jessica mentioned, and of course as you have talked about, you did ultimately plead guilty to lesser charges. But of course there is some nuance around that decision, and I’m wondering if you are maybe comfortable talking about that. In hindsight we can kind of see that you were in an impossible situation, but what did it feel like at the time?

DH: At the time, my life was over. I just lost trial on three 10-to-life [counts]. According to attorneys I’ve talked to, they think they would have run two of them concurrent and one consecutive. So basically I was looking at a 20-to-life sentence. And from what I saw while I was incarcerated, I would have done at least 20 to 25 years minimum.

I thought my life was over. So when things came up, and we thought well we might have cause here for retrial, I said ‘Let’s go for it. Let’s get it.' And at that time, I think the state did not want to pursue another retrial. I don’t know if the prosecuting attorneys had doubts in their own minds as to what was going on and the validity of the charges, and so forth. But they were willing to work with us. And at that time they said ‘OK we’ll toss the trial out if he’s willing to take a plea deal.’

I had no choice. I had to jump on that. So instead of looking at three 10-to-lifes, I was looking at two one-to-15s. And then the question was, were they going to run consecutive or concurrent. They ended up running them consecutive so it was basically a two-to-30 [sentence] as Jessica was saying.

BW: And ultimately you served a little over seven years?

DH: Yeah, about seven and a half. Eight years, give-or-take a couple of months, because there was some time while I was going through all of this that I was actually incarcerated in Salt Lake County Jail. So I was held there for about six months and that gets added on.

BW: And to look at that decision you made to take that plea deal, essentially you were allowed to leave prison earlier than you otherwise would have. That’s what it really comes down to.

DH: I’d be in there this day, right now, no question about it. I’ve got friends and people out there who were on charges that I was convicted of in my trial that are still there and will be there for years. I hate to use this kind of crude expression but if somebody puts a gun to your head and says ‘Admit, or I’m pulling the trigger,’ you’re going to tell them whatever they want to hear. Otherwise your life’s over. It’s just done. And that’s how I was looking at it.

So when the offer was given to me for a couple of second degree [felonies] I jumped on it knowing that once I started that process, it was probably going to be a road that I could never withdraw from or recant from. I can’t back up. In the system, the way it’s structured, it doesn’t allow you to do that. You take the plea deal, you go to prison, and all the way through the process you have to take full responsibility, especially with indeterminate sentencing.

With indeterminate sentencing, they could keep me there. I have two one-to-15s back-to-back. That’s 30 years. They could keep me there the whole time unless I surrendered and basically told them everything they wanted me to say. And that’s kind of how it is. In most cases, it’s probably not a bad thing to have indeterminate sentencing because it actually has, from what I’ve read, proven to let some guys out a little earlier who take responsibility, who are legitimately guilty of things. But for the few that get caught up in the system like me, it puts you in a Catch-22, which is what I’m talking about.

BW: It’s interesting how you describe that, because it does kind of illustrate how a well-intended system for most situations might work. But every now and then you get the particular case...

DH: There’s people that are caught in the net that have no business being there. I happen to be one of them.

BW: Jessica I see you nodding, I’m wondering if maybe you can give us a little more context on this. This dynamic that David is describing of pleading guilty, establishing that legal record and then having to maintain that if you’re ever going to make something of your life.

JM: Exactly. With charges like what David was convicted of, you have to go through sex offender treatment in prison. And part of that treatment is you have to admit to your crimes. And so for people like David, you face the choice of you either say you did these terrible things that you didn’t do — so that you’re not in prison for 30 years — or you just stay in prison.

It wasn’t just David either. Talking to the sons, they said they also continued lying in group therapy for the first couple of years because they thought that is what they had to do to keep up this ruse. So in those first couple of years with this family, it seemed like everyone had to keep lying, just because he needed to get out of prison at some point. The boys felt they needed to keep this ruse up. But at a certain point, his sons start telling first family members and then other people, ‘Hey, you know, this wasn’t true. My dad didn’t do this to me.’ And then it kind of snowballed from from there over the years.

BW: David, in your case now you’re receiving compensation from the state — roughly $350,000. And your name has been removed from the sex offender registry. I don’t even really know how to ask this question, but does that help?

DH: I try to not get emotional about this. I mean it’s just... you have no idea. You have no idea the pain and suffering I’ve gone through for the last 13 years of my life. And many times sitting in a cell or a dorm in prison thinking ‘It’s all hopeless. There’s never gonna be a day where I can be out from underneath this.’

I lost everything — most importantly, my relationship with my family. No, I wasn’t a perfect father. But I wanted my family and I love my family. It’s one of the reasons why I’m putting it all behind me. I had conversations with guys walking the yard in prison and so forth and I divulged everything to them. And some of these hardcore inmates said they would never forgive anyone that ever did something like that to them. And that’s not who I am. It’s not what I’m about.

That’s probably the greatest thing that’s come out of this right now. I keep going back to the healing process, where I can move forward with my children, help them get their lives established, help them progress in life and make something in themselves. For me the weight — I mean just from the judge’s decision, to be able to walk around — everything feels lighter now. I’m out of the system. I don’t have Big Brother sitting over my shoulder waiting for me to do something dumb, trivial, irrelevant to my alleged crimes, but enough to put you back in prison for a petty parole violation or something like that.

And being on the registry — it’s so hard in this state for a sex offender to find a place to live or meaningful work. I have multiple college degrees, I can’t use them. Nobody even wants to talk to me. Most of the companies I’ve applied to: background check, background check, background check. I say ‘Well let me tell you my story’. Sorry, it goes up the corporate ladder every time. And corporate doesn’t have that personal contact with me at the door, so they kick me out every time. Once or twice I’ve had a couple of people who might be willing to work with me, but it’s like pulling teeth. It’s really hard.

So the list of things that a person has to go through who’s on the registry is enormous. It’s huge. You not only pay for your crime in prison, but then you pay when you get out and you continue to pay the rest of your life. And now, from my understanding, you’re on a sex offender registry not just for 5, 10 years — it’s a life registry. So you never get out of it. That means every time you travel, go out of state, any time you’re anywhere doing anything — if you get pulled over for a small, mild traffic violation or something — it could be an issue depending on the state and state law you’re in. Just that alone is huge. So you put it all together and the relief is enormous.

BW: You mentioned when we started occasionally having lost faith in the system. Our [legal] system is rooted in this idea of innocent until proven guilty. In the case of your original trial, a jury believed you were guilty of these crimes. Do you blame the jurors? Do you blame the system?

DH: I’m going to give you my two cents worth here. Years ago, with murder cases, they set the burden of proof very high, for obvious reasons. You get convicted of a murder crime, you’re going away the rest of your life. So you have to have a motive, you have to have a weapon, you have to have a body, you have to have these standards to meet before it even warrants going to trial, from what I understand. I’m no attorney but that’s way I understand it.

Somehow with sex crimes, we’re giving out the same kind of sentence, and it’s actually a harder sentence in many respects. Because if you’re a murderer in prison, who thinks a murder is a cool guy? Nobody. But in prison, it’s got its own kind of modus operandi, I guess you could say? It’s own way of looking at things. And the guys that are hardened criminals, they’re kind of the hierarchy of the food chain. In the real world they’re not, but in prison they are. But as a sex offender you’re the bottom. Especially if you’re convicted of a child sex offense, you’re dirt, you’re nothing. You’re right at the bottom. You’ve got to watch your back a lot more while you’re in prison, as opposed to the murderer.

So going back to what I was saying, with sex crimes, somehow, some way, we’re giving out the same sentence without the same measure or burden of proof. Finger pointing is enough to put a guy away for the rest of his life. We’ve got guys that are going through divorces, bad marriages, bad relationships, disgruntled children, whatever the list might be of reasons why they’re really ticked off at a guy right now. And they make an accusation. And I don’t even think they understand how serious this accusation is.

Maybe in their mind they think ‘Oh he’ll get in trouble, maybe go to prison for a year.’ I don’t even know what they think. But they’re giving guys 10-life, 15-life, 25-to-life without any evidence, facts or proof. Something needs to be done about that. Because yeah, in a lot of cases, they did that, they did something. I would say maybe 95, 98, 99% of guys in prison did something. Maybe they only did a small fraction of what they were actually accused of, but they were convicted of a huge thing.

The system, in my opinion, needs to be looked at — overhauled. There needs to be some kind of reform. There’s my two cents.

BW: Jessica, you alluded earlier to how we don’t really know exactly how widespread this type of scenario is. We obviously hear about appeals of wrongful conviction and pleas to the public, but it’s rare for convictions to be overturned. It’s rarer still for a determination of factual innocence. I have two questions: would any of this have been possible without the reversal of the testimonies that put David away; and just how rare is it for someone to be convicted and then ultimately found to be innocent?

JM: It was his sons changing their story, recanted their testimony. When his attorney filed the petition, you basically have to have some sort of new evidence that shows that they’re innocent. In his case, a couple of years ago his sons had written some letters to a judge saying that ‘this testimony that we gave when we were children? We’re adults now, we want to tell you it’s not true.’ That was the evidence that David’s attorney used to make the argument that he was factually innocent. And the Attorney General’s Office filed a petition, basically just agreeing with that. There might have been more stuff going on behind the scenes that’s not in the court papers that have been filed but they haven’t contested that.

I asked the Attorney General’s Office how often this happens, because I don’t ever hear about it but I don’t see every single case. And they said that it’s considered exceedingly rare and perhaps only three have gone through the system in the last eight years or so. And a handful of requests come in every year that the evidence isn’t there, it’s not a viable request. So for this to happen to David, it’s really rare. It’s not something that happens very often at all.

BW: David, I want to go back to something you were describing about the weight that can hang over a person. We’ve heard from others who have been convicted of crimes and who are potentially out on parole about how you run a red light, you miss a court date, your car breaks down and you can’t check whatever box needs to be checked and, potentially, you’re back in [prison]. Do you feel that you are in the clear? Or is there still a part of you that wonders if another shoe could drop?

DH: The other shoe — so to speak — that you’re talking about would be that even though I’ve cleared my name, it’s expunged, and my record’s clear, there’s always that fear in the back of my mind. What if somebody else wants to fire an accusation at me for whatever reason? I have no interest in kids whatsoever. OK? But it makes me nervous now that it could happen so easily, that somebody can make an accusation. So there’s that in the back of my mind, because if you’ve already gone through the process once, maybe somebody would say ‘Oh he was just lucky or he was good or he had an excellent attorney or blah blah blah and that’s how he got his name cleared. But really he’s guilty.'

And so the next time around if anything — God forbid — should happen, maybe they’d say ‘Oh well maybe he is guilty, because there is that thing in the shadow back there that maybe happened years ago.’ So it’s almost like guilty until proven innocent once again. But even more so because I’ve got this other thing.

I don’t think about it. The chances of that happening are pretty small — like slim to none. But I’ve had 13 years of watching my back, wondering where I am, who I am, what I’m doing, where I am. And you get out on parole and it’s like, God, I can’t go anywhere. I mean, I’m in Utah, there’s kids everywhere. But I’m not supposed to be around kids? I could care less about the kid, but it’s the fact that the police are looking at you like, ‘Why are you around kids?’

What if I go into a men’s room, come out and there happens to be a kid in there alone? You see? Normal people don’t have to even give that a second thought. I’m a normal person, but I have to think, would somebody think something? So it might take time to to change that thought process in my head to the point where I’m really free and I no longer have to watch my back — so to speak — because I’ve been conditioned that all these rules apply to me. I’m on parole or I’ve been accused or I’ve been convicted. That will go away, I think, in time. But for right now it’s still kind of fresh in my mind. A wound takes so much time to heal and you can’t really rush the process to make it go away immediately.

I accept that. I accept that’s part of the process. But as far as the main weight, it’s long gone. I just walk freer, smile. For longest time I had a hard time even lifting my head up at times. I walked around and people said ‘What’s wrong with you?’ And you have no idea, I mean, just the burden, the weight you carry. And It isn’t just one thing. It’s not just financial, it’s not just relationships with your children. It’s dating. I meet a woman, she’s got kids. Well, I gotta explain. No matter who you date, you’ve got to go through this process of explaining. And then in my case I gotta say ‘Well it really didn’t happen.' Oh yeah, sure. Sure, they put innocent people in prison all the time. You see? The dynamics are huge. And so for me personally, the relief, you can’t put a price on it.

BW: You’ve been through a 13-year ordeal now and it’s kind of a cliche question but I feel like in this circumstance it applies. What do you do now?

DH: Like I said, I’m trying to look forward. I’m trying to help my kids get their college educations, get their feet on the ground — so to speak — get on with their lives. And me, in the same time, I need to move forward myself, marry somebody wonderful and go forward with my life.

I haven’t been out of the state for basically 13 years. I want to take a long vacation right now. I’d say ‘go get some sun,’ but we have plenty of sun right now. But you see what I’m saying? You just have a positive attitude and doors will open up.

“Trib Talk” is produced by Sara Weber with additional editing by Dan Harrie. Comments and feedback can be sent to tribtalk@sltrib.com, or to @bjaminwood or @tribtalk on Twitter.