VERNAL — Bail has been set for a man who has spent nearly four years in prison for an aggravated child sex abuse conviction that was vacated by the Utah Supreme Court earlier this month.
Anthony Watkins, 44, can be released if he posts the $10,000 bail set Wednesday by Judge Ed Peterson, who warned the Colorado man what would happen if he failed to appear for any future court hearings.
"I will try the case without you here," Peterson said. "If you go — as we used to say in the military — 'into the bushes,' you will kneecap your attorney's ability to help you."
A jury convicted Watkins in July 2009 of aggravated sexual abuse of a child, a first-degree felony. Witnesses testified that Watkins was living with a Uintah County family in 2008 when he entered a room where a 10-year-old girl was sleeping and sexually abused her.
The girl told him to stop and had to tell him twice to leave the room before he did so, court records state. The girl told investigators Watkins gave her $100 the following day and told her "not to tell anybody" about what had taken place the night before.
At trial, prosecutors argued that Watkins fit the statutory definition of a person in a "position of special trust" because he was an "adult cohabitant" in the home. Under state law, that aggravating circumstance exposed Watkins to a mandatory prison term.
Watkins was sentenced to 10 years to life in prison. He appealed his conviction, arguing that he did not occupy a position of special trust with the victim and had no ability to exercise undue influence over her.
In a unanimous decision issued May 10, the Utah Supreme Court ruled that Watkins was in a position of special trust because he was living with the girl's father and stepmother. However, the court also found that prosecutors never presented evidence that Watkins was able to exercise undue influence over the girl, something the justices said is required for the aggravating circumstances to apply.
"The plain language of the statute creates an enhanced penalty for perpetrators who both occupied a 'position of authority' and had the ability to 'exercise undue influence' over their victims," Justice Jill Parrish wrote in the court's 12-page opinion.
Some of the positions of special trust that automatically put an adult in a position of authority, under state law, include youth leader, coach, teacher, counselor and doctor.
The justices noted that if the Legislature "intended to enhance the sentence for all perpetrators who occupied each of the enumerated positions, it could have included a separate subsection stating that defendants who occupied certain positions could be convicted as a matter of strict liability."
Utah lawmakers chose not to do so, Parrish wrote.
Therefore, for a person to be convicted of aggravated sexual abuse of a child, prosecutors must prove "both that the defendant occupied a 'position of authority' over the victim and that the position gave the defendant the ability to 'exercise undue influence' over the victim," the justice wrote.
"Because the lower courts did not require the state to establish both elements, we vacate Mr. Watkins’ conviction," Parrish wrote.
The high court's ruling is already raising questions in pending child sex abuse cases in Utah. Those questions could be addressed by the Legislature with a change to the statutory language.
Uintah County prosecutor Mike Drechsel said Wednesday that the Utah Attorney General's Office will ask the Supreme Court to reconsider its ruling, and may ask the justices to reinstate Watkins' conviction without the enhancement for occupying a position of special trust.
That would make the charge a second-degree felony, which carries a possible prison term of one to 15 years.
Watkins told the court he plans to live with family in Grand Junction, Colo., if he is released on bail. He is barred from having any contact with the family of his alleged victim and with individuals under the age of 18 .
A review hearing in the case is set for June 26 in 8th District Court.