Judge questions whether sex abuse was 'invited,' orders probation for jailer
Victim, advocate say such comments are why women don't always report sex crimes
Ravell Call, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — Deborah Hatch said she was only looking for one thing when she attended last week's sentencing hearing for a former Wasatch County jailer who physically abused her and another woman while they were inmates.
"I just wanted closure," she said. "I wanted my daughters to see that if you stand up and do what's right, then you're going to be taken care of."
Instead, she said she was basically told that as a jail inmate, she was a second-class citizen who "deserved what I got" when Christopher Stein Epperson touched her inappropriately.
"I just feel like I kind of just got told I was the worst and I wasn't innocent and I feel like I was being told that I deserved what I got," she said Tuesday. "It was a different situation because we were inmates.
"We got that (message) from the judge."
According to a court transcript of the hearing obtained by the Deseret News, U.S. District Judge David Sam repeatedly questioned Hatch's credibility and that of the other victim before sentencing him to probation and eight months of home confinement.
Prosecutors had asked for a sentence of four years in prison.
"As I said previously, this case is just fraught with 'she said, he said.' It's fraught with the possibility of conduct that was lured, encouraged and invited," Sam said.
Holly Mullen, executive director of the Rape Recovery Center, said she was surprised to hear such comments from a judge. She said dismissing a sexual assault as a "she said, he said" conundrum is part of the reason such crimes are so under-reported.
"For many years now there's really only been about a 10 percent reporting rate of sexual crimes," Mullen said. "There's a very strong culture that exists that (says) this is just going to be too difficult to prove. (Prosecutors) will tell victims, 'I'm sorry. I'm not saying this didn't happen to you, but we can't make a case,' and it does have a chilling effect."
Epperson pleaded guilty to two counts of deprivation of rights under color of law in connection with his job as a deputy sheriff. Color of law means the person is using lawful authority bestowed by a local, state or federal agency.
The man admitted that he touched the bare breasts of two female inmates and that he touched the genital area of one of them, according to court documents. But his attorney, Steven Killpack, contends that his client only pleaded guilty to simple assault and that his actions were merely due to a lack of training.
"He always agreed that he could have and should have acted more prudently when he enforced the jail rules there with these inmates, but they had accused him of actions beyond that," Killpack said. "They had accused him of sexual misconduct and he has always denied that and he denied it in his plea."
Hatch said Epperson was the one who booked her into the Wasatch County Jail in March of 2010. She said fairly early on he began making comments about her body and giving her directions about what clothing she could wear. He would later touch her inappropriately and order her to show him her chest while he took pictures, she said.
"It was instantly aggressive and shocking," she said, but added that her complaints to others in the jail fell on deaf ears.
Hatch said Epperson urged her to keep quiet and threatened her visits with her daughters.
"He would tell me not to say anything," she recalled. "He said, 'Don't say anything, because I'm going to deny it and who's going to believe you? You're an inmate and I'm a deputy."
Eventually, Epperson was released from jail. She said she tried to get someone to listen to her story for two years, but it wasn't until she was sent back to the jail and an attorney asked what was wrong that someone paid attention.
Federal prosecutors charged Epperson with nine counts of deprivation of rights under color of law and four counts of unauthorized access to a computer in March 2012. He pleaded guilty to the two counts of deprivation in August.
Still, a pre-sentence report apparently only recommended probation. Though the report reflected a plea to simple assault, assistant U.S. attorney Carlos Esqueda argued that Epperson "engaged in conduct amounting to aggravated sexual abuse."
The pre-sentence report also didn't take into account the position of trust that Epperson held.
"As a jail guard the defendant was directly responsible to ensure the safety and care of the inmates," Esqueda wrote. "Furthermore, his status as a jail guard places him with significant power over the victims and he utilized that position to commit and conceal his crimes."
The report also failed to include an increase in sentencing factors for obstruction of justice, which Esqueda said Epperson did by threatening the victims. He told them that if they didn't keep quiet about the abuse, he would take away their privileges.
"Here the defendant used his position of authority or power over the victims to ensure their silence of the abuse," Esqueda wrote, adding that Epperson also initially lied to police and denied any of the inappropriate touching. "The defendant has continually placed blame on the victims or others for his conduct and has never fully admitted the egregiousness of his conduct by claiming he was ill-trained or that he inadvertently touched the breasts or genitalia of the victims."
Esqueda requested at least four years in prison. The maximum sentence Epperson faced was 20 years in prison.
"The defendant's sentence should send a message that no matter where you are, who you are, what your circumstances in your life are, the law will protect you," he told the judge.
Sam indicated that he reviewed the case against Scott Womack, a former Box Elder County sheriff's deputy who pleaded guilty to illegally strip-searching women at traffic stops, because he felt that the allegations were similar. The judge noted that in his 50 years of experience in the criminal justice system, he had "never had a case quite like this one," the transcript reads.
"I want to say, you know, this case is a case that I mean it's so involved and so many things he said, she said, she said, he said, she said he did, he said she did, and it just goes back and forth," Sam said.
Esqueda also referenced the Womack case and quoted Sam's own words from the sentencing in that case.
"And the court said, and I quote, 'The violation of a woman's most intimate privacy is conduct that cannot be tolerated by a law enforcement officer who is held in a position of the highest trust,'" Esqueda said. "Sound, compelling words by this court. Our community can learn from those words. But in the Womack case there was no touching. That doesn't excuse his behavior. And this court sentenced him to 24 months in prison for not touching a single woman."
Sam corrected the man and said the sentence was 18 months. Later, he said there is a "great difference" between the two cases.
"We have innocent people on the highways of this country and state traveling back and forth all the time, and when a law officer stops someone, it should be for a legitimate reason, and when that law officer breaches that, it is serious to me ...," Sam said. "In this case, there are so many statements in this record that go back and forth. I need not quote those statements. Those statements speak for themselves. There are serious matters regarding the credibility of the two victims, and the record speaks for itself."
Hatch said she had a hard time grasping what she was hearing.
"Those were innocent women and we weren't because we were inmates," she said. "The judge was putting it out there and I was just shocked. I kind of just sat there numb and didn't realize what had gone on until I got out of the courtroom."
Mullen said the judge's statement speaks to a mindset that delineates some victims as innocent and others who bring abuse upon themselves. She said it's a mindset that can't be tolerated and is changing.
"Victims and potential victims see those stories and say, 'Why am I going to put myself through this?" Mullen said. "If we're going to start parsing out who's innocent and who deserves to be perpetrated on that, to me, is very slippery territory for a judge to wade into."
Killpack asked for "minimum sentence necessary to accomplish the goals in the sentencing guidelines." He said the plea meant his client took responsibility for what he had done, but reminded the judge that Epperson didn't ever admit to anything other than simple assault.
He said Tuesday that the assaults were out of character for Epperson. The man is now married with two children and one on the way and wants to put this behind him.
"He admitted originally that he had acted improperly and had requested training which he did not receive, then he asked to be transferred out of the jail, which did not happen. But most certainly he feels badly that he didn't act more prudently and that's the reason he pled guilty to the charges that he pled to," Killpack said. "They're very serious charges even as they are and he will of course now have on his record a non-expungable federal felony and will be prohibited from working in law enforcement ever again."
Killpack asked for probation and that any commitment be served in home confinement. Sam sentenced Epperson to three years' probation and GPS monitoring for eight months but did not order any fines, restitution or any time behind bars.
"I want to just say to this defendant that there was conduct that certainly I view as inappropriate and not becoming, and certainly I warn you that if there is any conduct during your period of probation, that you may be brought back and that matter addressed and there could be further consequences," Sam said.
Hatch said the sentence was far from the justice she was seeking. The experience has left her feeling as though she's in a no-win situation.
Her family has already endured harassment, comments on Facebook and bullying at her daughters' school.
"It just feels like you're damned if you do and damned if you don't," Hatch said.
She said her mother cries on the phone because of what happened. She said her father died three days after learning she had been sexually assaulted in jail and it hurts her to think that it was one of the last things he knew.
"I just want my daughters to be OK and for me to be OK — for my family to be OK," Hatch said. "I just want people to know. I want people to be aware and I don't want it to happen again."
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