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The child pornography case at the center of Ketanji Brown Jackson’s hearing

Supreme Court nominee Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson testifies Wednesday on the third day of her confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
6 min

Over three days, Senate Republicans have most often returned to one sentencing decision by Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson to try to paint her approach over a decade on the federal bench as dangerously soft on crime.

Republican criticism of Jackson’s 2013 decision — which sent then 19-year-old Wesley Hawkins away to prison for three months for child pornography — continued Wednesday, but with a new pointed line of attack. Senators alleged Hawkins must have committed additional sex crimes in the nation’s capital to end up back before Jackson in 2019.

Some of the records in the case are sealed, but The Washington Post has pieced together previously unreported aspects of it.

Hawkins had come to the attention of law enforcement in 2012, when, as an 18-year-old, he uploaded to YouTube five videos of prepubescent boys engaged in sex acts. An undercover detective soon emailed him, suggesting the two had “similar interests.”

Hawkins emailed the agent two videos, and wrote that he was interested in boys ages 11 to 17. Authorities executed a search warrant in June, finding 17 videos and 16 images of boys on a laptop and a phone.

Fact checks found no inconsistencies in Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson's sentencing record in regards to child-pornography cases. (Video: Adriana Usero/The Washington Post)

Hawkins cooperated with the investigation, federal prosecutors said. In court filings, they wrote that the recent high school graduate had agreed to be interviewed by detectives, admitted possession, entered a pre-indictment guilty plea and took “full responsibility for his actions.”

Although federal guidelines called for a sentence of eight to 10 years, prosecutors said that given Hawkins’s age and lack of criminal record they recommended two years. According to documents given to senators, a U.S. probation officer recommended a year and a half.

Hawkins’s defense attorney asked for far less: a sentence of one-day in jail, home detention and five years’ of supervised release. The attorney said that Hawkins was not dangerous, had a sexual identity issue complicated by his mother’s strict religious beliefs and that his offense was prompted by a teenage sexual drive, not an intrinsic sexual attraction to significantly younger children.

Jackson, who was then a federal-district court judge for D.C., said in court that Hawkins had committed “a very serious and, in many ways, heinous crime, one that capitalizes on the victimization of the most vulnerable members of our society … I cannot even express adequately how horrifying it is for me to know that somewhere out there there are children who are being trapped and molested and raped for the viewing pleasure of people like yourself.”

Yet, Jackson said she was also persuaded by some of the defense arguments, as well as her own review of the record, including that Hawkins had not produced any of the videos or taken any of the pictures, but exchanged ones he had found online.

Addressing Hawkins, she said: “You were only involved in this for a few months” and that “other than your engagement with the undercover officer, there isn’t an indication that you were in any online communities to advance your collecting behavior.”

Jackson said the relative age of those Hawkins was viewing also had to be weighed: “Most child pornography offenders are middle-aged adults who are deviants drawn to pictures of vulnerable children … This case is different because the children in the photos and videos you collected were not much younger than you. This seems to be a situation in which you were fascinated by sexual images involving what were essentially your peers.”

As such, Jackson rejected so-called enhancements to Hawkins’s sentence, including one that would have extended his prison term because of the young ages of those pictured.

In a handwritten letter three days before sentencing that is in the court file, Hawkins asked Jackson for a second chance. “I cannot say how much I regret what I have done. I have disappointed everyone in my family and everyone who has ever cared about me. I hope that I can make up my mistakes and that this will not end my life before it starts.”

Jackson imposed a prison term of three months, followed by three months of home detention and six years of supervision. While she warned Hawkins that he had jeopardized his future, she said she hoped he could rehabilitate and become a productive member of society, noting he had been accepted to college.

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) called the sentence “a slap on the wrist,” and repeatedly pressed Jackson on Wednesday to say whether she regretted not handing down a longer prison term.

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) cited a 2019 court order from Jackson that required Hawkins to enter a halfway house to complete the last six months of his six-year term of supervision. The order reiterated earlier terms of his supervision that his computer and property were subject to search at any time, and added the condition of computer monitoring software.

The underlying request that prompted Jackson’s 2019 order is sealed, which is typical for such probation office applications.

Cotton asked Jackson whether Hawkins had committed additional sex crimes. “What did Wesley Hawkins do in 2019, judge?” Cotton asked.

“I don’t remember,” Jackson replied.

Cotton scoffed, saying he did not find Jackson’s answer credible. “You’ve been asked about it probably more than any other case you’ve had,” he said, referring to the many hours that Republicans had focused on the case since the start of her Senate confirmation. “You know what I think? I think he got caught with child pornography again, and he wouldn’t have if he had been in prison the eight to 10 years the guidelines called for,” Cotton said.

A person familiar with the Hawkins case read to The Post the probation office request that led to Jackson’s order. The person spoke on the condition of anonymity, because they were not authorized to publicly discuss it.

The probation office petition did not allege that Hawkins committed any new sexual offense or violation of conditions. However, it stated that “despite being in treatment for more than five years,” Hawkins “continues to seek out sexually arousing, non-pornographic material and images of males 13 to 16-years-old.”

The petition asked Jackson to order closer supervision to reduce the risk of recidivism and help Hawkins regain independent function.

The Post has not found any subsequent criminal warrants or arrests for Hawkins. He has been registered as a sex offender since 2014.

Jackson has forcefully defended her sentencing decisions and called the act of balancing punishment to reflect the seriousness of the crime with the circumstances of a case the essence of what a judge is called to do.

At Hawkins’s November 2013 sentencing she cast the challenge as finding a “just sentence” — “One that allows you, Mr. Hawkins, to spend enough time in prison to understand and appreciate the consequences of your actions … but not so long that you will be subjected to harm in prison or introduced to incorrigible influences such that you are lost to society forever.”

Alice Crites contributed to this report.

Ketanji Brown Jackson

The latest: Ketanji Brown Jackson will be sworn in as the Supreme Court’s first Black female justice at noon Eastern time on June 30, just minutes after her mentor Justice Stephen G. Breyer makes his retirement official. It is the first time the Supreme Court will have four female justices among its nine members.

The votes: The Senate voted 53-to-47 to confirm Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court, with three Republican senators joining every Democratic and independent senator. Here’s how each senator voted on Jackson’s nomination.

The nominee: The president named Ketanji Brown Jackson, a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, as his first Supreme Court nominee. She is set be the first Black woman justice in the court’s history.

What it means: The Democrats will succeed in their efforts to replace the oldest of three liberal justices on and further diversify the Supreme Court ahead of the 2022 midterm elections.