Nick Short
Kevin Peterson, right, sits next to his attorney, Gary Gale, during proceedings in 2nd District Court Aug. 4, 2009, in Ogden.
He wanted to clear his name the entire 15 years. —Attorney Jason Richards

OGDEN — He could admit that he sexually abused his own children and continue with his probation, or he could profess his innocence and serve out a 15-year prison term.

Such was the dilemma facing Kevin Peterson, a Utah man whose exoneration story continues to reverberate around the legal community.

It started in the late 1980s for Peterson, when a custody battle erupted with his ex-wife over their two children.

“One night Kevin gets a knock on the door,” attorney Jason Richards said of a night in 1990. “Children get taken out of his home and he’s arrested and taken to jail. Later he finds out he’s being charged with several first-degree felonies for allegations of sex abuse against his kids.”

The case proceeded through the justice system and during a preliminary hearing, Peterson’s children took the stand and testified against him.

“He heard his son testify and he just figured, 'Man, there’s no way I can beat this,'” Richards said.

Peterson pleaded guilty to sexual abuse of a child, a second-degree felony. He was sentenced to probation, but as part of the probation he was required to complete therapy treatment for sex offenders.

“Of course, when he gets to that point in the therapy (he says), ‘Well, I didn’t do anything — I didn’t do this,'” Richards said.

Part of the therapy was to detail the abuse committed. Peterson couldn’t do it.

His probation officer caught wind, and his probation was ultimately revoked. Peterson ended up serving 15 years in the Utah State Prison. He was released in 2007.

“He wanted to clear his name the entire 15 years,” Richards said.

Peterson sought out legal help and the case ultimately wound up in Richards’ hands. Peterson’s children recanted. Richards said the kids’ mother and stepfather compelled the children to lie.

“He is disgusted,” Richards said of his client.

Peterson’s name has now been cleared. He is off the sex offender registry. He works as a truck driver and now has what’s described as a good relationship with his children. Peterson himself is not talking about his story.

Scott Reed, chief of the attorney general’s criminal justice division, said it was unlikely any action could be taken against the children’s mother and stepfather, citing the time that had elapsed from the original false claims.

Reed said the story is one of the most perplexing factual innocence cases he has seen.

While he said he believes people should first put their trust in the criminal justice system to do the right thing, he was divided on what would have been the best course of action for Peterson — who faced a life in disgrace through a guilty plea to false allegations, or a 15-year sentence by maintaining his innocence.

“It’s easy to say ‘stick to your guns,’” Reed said. “I think it’s harder to do when you’re the guy in the crosshairs of the system and you’re looking at a lengthy prison term and you have to make some very hard decisions about how that’s going to turn out.”

Richards said “innocent until proven guilty” didn’t happen for his client until it was too late.

“That was the overall outcome in the end — that justice was served,” Richards said. “Unfortunately, it took much longer than it should have.”