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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.