Utah man deemed innocent and state will pay him $350K after his sons lied about being sexually abused

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) David Hawkins has been declared factually innocent of the crime of sexually abusing his sons, September 4, 2019. In 2018, Jeremy and Nathan Hawkins, now in their 20's, admitted to making the story up and lying on the witness stand as children, in an effort to get their father's conviction overturned. Hawkins spent seven years locked up before his release in 2015.

David Hawkins is all too familiar with hopelessness.

He spent seven years in a prison cell, convicted of crimes he knew he didn’t commit. But what did that matter? A jury deemed him a sex offender, so even when he got out, he was crushed under parole officers and sex offender registries that affected everything from where he lived to the jobs he could get.

And he had long since lost his family. That was stripped of him for the past 13 years, after two of his sons told police he sexually abused them.

Hopelessness … he knew all about it.

But those feelings are now gone, replaced with not just hope but dreams of beach vacations, rekindled relationships and a reclaimed life.

A judge on Friday signed an order declaring Hawkins factually innocent.

That means his criminal record will be wiped clean. No more sex offender registry. And he’ll receive more than $350,000 from the state as compensation for what he lost while behind bars.

[Listen: David Hawkins shares his experience of being wrongly convicted on “Trib Talk” podcast]

“I feel fantastic,” Hawkins said. “Truth finally prevailed. For years, I had so many doubts that the truth would come out.”

Being found factually innocent is extremely rare — Hawkins is only the fifth Utahn to be declared innocent since this sort of petition became part of the state law more than a decade ago.

Hawkins’ declaration of innocence is pinned on the revised stories of his sons, who now say they lied about being sexually abused. They were young boys then — Nathan Hawkins was 9 and Jeremy Hawkins was 13 — when they made up a story about their father because they were upset at the way they were treated at home and how their father disciplined them.

Now in their 20s, Nathan and Jeremy have spent the past six years trying to clear their father’s name, with little success.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Three brothers are trying to get their father's conviction as a sex offender vacated. Two of the brothers (Jeremy and Nathan Hawkins) lied about being sexually abused by their dad when they were kids. Now they are in their early 20s and are trying to fix what they did 12 years ago. Ian, Jeremy, and Nathan Hawkins in Magna, Tuesday July 31, 2018.

Joined by their brother Ian, they wrote letters to the judge who sentenced their father. They asked the Salt Lake District Attorney’s Office for a review, but prosecutors there found the conviction was sound. The brothers even wrote to a Utah congressman pleading for help.

Nothing worked.

Then, Greg Skordas, the attorney who originally represented Hawkins at his trial, filed a factual innocence petition in November. He pointed to the sons’ letters to the judge as “newly discovered evidence.” Skordas wrote that the children were caught in the middle of their parents’ divorce, had a tumultuous relationship with their father and did not fully understand the impact of their allegations.

As Hawkins puts it now, it was his sons’ testimonies that put him behind bars for all those years — and it was his sons’ testimonies now that set him free.

A convicted man

The last time Hawkins saw Jeremy or Nathan was when they sat on the witness stand in a West Jordan courtroom 13 years ago and told the jury their father had sexually abused them in a bathtub before Sunday church services.

Going to trial was a high-stakes gamble for Hawkins. If he lost, he was looking at 10 years to life on each charge. Then 45 years old, it would have likely meant spending the rest of his life in prison.

He listened to his two sons in disbelief as they leveled the serious allegations against him.

Ian and their sister testified that there was no sexual abuse. But despite no physical evidence, the jury believed Jeremy and Nathan, and found Hawkins guilty.

Hawkins planned to challenge the outcome of the case, and there was talk of a second trial. But, instead, prosecutors offered him a deal: Plead guilty to two counts of second-degree felony child sex abuse and we won’t pursue another trial.

After being found guilty once already, Hawkins felt he had no choice.

“I thought my life was over,” he said recently. “I had no choice. I had to jump on that.”

So he pleaded guilty to things he didn’t do, and was sent to prison.

While locked up, Hawkins says he continued to lie and admitted to the abuse in sex offender treatment. Completing the treatment — which requires the offender to acknowledge their crimes — is mandatory to be considered for parole. Had he not admitted, he feared he’d have to spend the maximum 30 years behind bars.

He was released in 2015, after spending more than seven years behind bars.

But even though Hawkins was released from a prison cell, he wasn’t truly a free man. He struggled to find housing that would allow a sex offender, and he couldn’t get meaningful work. Before his arrest, he worked as a chiropractor and was highly educated, but few employers were willing to work with him because of his convictions.

“You not only pay for your crime in prison,” he said. “But then you get out and you continue to pay the rest of your life.”

Factual innocence

Jeremy and Nathan told The Salt Lake Tribune last year that they made up the story about their dad as kids knowing it would put their father in jail — but not realizing then the lifelong ramifications it would carry.

After Hawkins’ filed his factual innocence petition last fall, Nathan said he was looking forward to having the chance to tell a judge about why they lied.

“I want the truth to continue to finally come forward and that this finally gets resolved,” he said. “I know that we all want to move forward and get this mess behind us.”

But there was no formal hearing. The attorney general’s office didn’t dispute Hawkins’ innocence, and filed paperwork last week agreeing that he was innocent.

Then came 3rd District Judge Richard McKelvie’s signature on an order Friday making it official.

The decision made Hawkins feel elated. For a long time, he said he had a hard time even lifting his head up. Now, he feels like he can walk with a weight off his shoulders.

“Everything feels lighter now,” Hawkins said. “I’m out of the system.”

This declaration has been a long time coming, said Skordas, Hawkins’ attorney. The defense attorney said he’s known ever since he represented Hawkins at trial more than a decade ago that his client didn’t do it.

They first went to the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office in 2017 asking for them to vacate the conviction, but after reviewing the case for a year, they declined to do so. That left the petition for factual innocence as a last resort.

“They really wasted a year of our time looking it over,” he said. “The factual innocence petition wasn’t something we had wanted to do, because it takes so long and the process is so painful. And Hawkins gets a pile of money [with a factual innocence petition]. We didn’t care about that, we were willing to forgo every penny.”

Skordas said the biggest challenge for them was to show why Hawkins would admit to crimes and lie in prison about sexually abusing his sons. But after they filed the petition, the attorney general’s office interviewed Hawkins’ sons once more. They came to a different conclusion than the original prosecuting office.

“These things are so rare,” Skordas said. “And it’s the end of a long journey for this poor guy. Now he’s got to try to build his life back up.”

Hawkins is one of only a handful of Utahns who have successfully petitioned their innocence.

Debra Brown was the first person to be exonerated under a Utah law enacted in 2008 that allowed convictions to be reconsidered based on new evidence. After a judge declared her innocent in 2011, she was paid more than $500,000. She had been incarcerated for 17 years after being convicted of shooting her boss in the head.

The most recent exoneree was a Weber County man whose case was remarkably similar to Hawkins’. Kevin Peterson’s children similarly reported in 1990 that he had sexually abused them, then later recanted.

But before that, Peterson took a plea deal. When he got to prison, he refused to admit that he had abused them. This meant he didn’t complete the required sex offender treatment, and he served every day of his 15-year sentence. He was released from prison in 2007, but it wasn’t until 2012 that a judge deemed him factually innocent. He was awarded $70,000.

  • Utahns who have been found factually innocent

  • Debra Brown, who served 17 years in prison for a 1993 shooting death of Lael Brown in Logan. Awarded more than $500,000.

  • Jed Gressman was in prison for three years in prison for an aggravated sexual assault before being cleared by DNA evidence of the crime. Awarded $220,000.

  • Harry Miller served more than four years in prison for a robbery he didn’t commit. Awarded an estimated $120,000.

  • Kevin Peterson was in prison for 15 years for sexual abuse of a child. Awarded $70,000.

  • David Hawkins served more than seven years in prison for sexual abuse of a child. Awarded more than $350,000.

Scott Reed, with the attorney general’s office, said there have been plenty of other cases where people have tried to convince a judge they were innocent. Outside of straightforward DNA cases, that’s tough to prove — someone must show that there is new evidence that is clearly convincing.

“That is truly rare,” he said, “because our investigators are generally so thorough and so good at what they do. They go out and find everything there is to find.”

But Reed said it’s important for Utahns to have an avenue to prove they are innocent and clear themselves of accusations of wrongdoing.

“Nobody wants an innocent person to spend even a day in custody for a crime they didn’t do,” he said.

For Hawkins, he said he’s now reexamining his future. He wants to work on mending his relationship with his estranged sons, and is setting aside money to help pay for their therapy.

He said he’s proud of his sons for what they did for him, and wants to help them as they establish their lives. Nathan is now serving a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Jeremy is going to college at Brigham Young University’s Hawaii campus.

“I’m trying to help my kids get their feet on the ground, get on with their lives,” he said. “And me, I need to move forward myself.”

What does that look like? Hawkins says he hopes to marry someday, and wants to get his chiropractic license back. But before all that, his mind shifts to another dream, something he would have had a hard time contemplating while he was in prison.

“I haven’t been out of the state for basically 13 years,” he said. “I want to take a long vacation right now.”

He envisions a trip to Florida, sitting on the beach with his son Ian, soaking up the sun and listening to the waves.