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Wesley Hawkins, talk of the Jackson hearings, describes life after pornography sentence

Supreme Court nominee Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson listens as she is asked a question Wednesday during her testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee. (Susan Walsh/AP)
9 min

Wesley Hawkins heard a few weeks ago that a Black woman had been nominated to the Supreme Court and wondered why her name, Ketanji Brown Jackson, sounded so familiar. Then, he saw her picture and knew. Jackson was the judge who had sentenced him for possession of child pornography nine years earlier, when he was a teenager.

Hawkins, now 27, gave the matter little additional thought. But in recent days, unbeknown to him, Hawkins’s 2013 sentencing became central to the partisan battle over confirming Jackson to the high court.

Looking for full-time employment, Hawkins this week repeatedly crisscrossed a neighborhood in view of the U.S. Capitol in his hunt — unaware that inside, members of Congress were talking at length about him and his case in nationally televised hearings.

In an interview Thursday at a relative’s home in the District, Hawkins was in disbelief. “My case?” he asked a Washington Post reporter. “They’re talking about my case?” Soon, he was watching YouTube clips, his mouth agape.

After his release, Hawkins said he worked for a few years in retail before being laid off. He has since gotten by on temporary jobs. He also has completed a number of training programs, including certification as an IT worker, he said.

Senate Republicans mentioned Hawkins’s name more than 30 times over three days to try to paint Jackson as dangerously soft on crime during her nearly 10 years on the federal bench. Republicans dwelled on how Jackson, 51, repeatedly handed down sentences below federal guidelines for child pornography convictions, even though that is the norm in seven in 10 cases nationally, according to statistics from the U.S. Sentencing Commission.

Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson faced questions from senators on March 23 during the second day of her confirmation hearing. (Video: Mahlia Posey, Joshua Carroll/The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Republicans argued that in the Hawkins case, they had found a particularly egregious example. Jackson imposed a sentence of three months for Hawkins’s plea of guilty to a felony offense. “You can get more than that almost for a speeding ticket,” said Sen. Ted Cruz. (R-Tex.)

Taking in the sparring in the YouTube cuts, Hawkins’s wide frame hunched forward and he balled up his hands in front of his white T-shirt. Over two hours, he appeared to cycle through shock, anger, frustration and finally, calm.

“If someone heard my name in that confirmation process or just saw it online because they were looking on the [sex offender] registry and want to call me a monster, I understand. I don’t blame them for that, and to an extent, I agree with them, because what I did was a bit monstrous,” Hawkins said, referring to the actions that led to his conviction.

“When I got to a place that I could think about what I had done, retrospectively, I was disgusted,” he said, “and if someone else wants to continue to see me that way, I can’t stop them. But what I hope is that when people look over time they can see he was just a young man, that he’s grown and learned from his actions.”

The Hawkins case was one of the first to come before Jackson after she was confirmed by the Senate as a federal-district court judge in Washington in 2013.

Hawkins was found with 17 videos and 16 images, several depicting prepubescent boys engaged in sex acts. Hawkins cooperated with police, admitted possession and entered a pre-indictment guilty plea. He also wrote a letter taking responsibility and expressing remorse.

Federal guidelines called for a sentence of eight to 10 years. Prosecutors recommended two years, given Hawkins’s age and lack of a criminal record. A U.S. probation officer recommended a year and a half. Hawkins’s defense attorney asked for just one day in jail and five years of supervised release.

Jackson said in court that Hawkins had committed “a very serious and, in many ways, heinous crime” but noted that Hawkins had not produced any of the videos or taken any of the pictures. She also said she had to weigh Hawkins’s age in relation to the age of the children in many of the images. He was not much older than they, she said. “This seems to be a situation in which you were fascinated by sexual images involving what were essentially your peers,” Jackson said. “And, as the psychological report concluded, there’s no reason to believe that you are a pedophile or that you pose any risk to children.”

The prosecution’s sentencing memo listed an 8-year old boy as one of the children in the videos, as well as boys ages 11 and 12. Hawkins was 18 when he was arrested and 19 when he was sentenced.

Jackson imposed a prison term of three months, followed by three months of home detention and six years of supervision. Jackson said she viewed it as 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.”

Hawkins was required to register as a sex offender for at least 10 years. He must notify authorities of any change of address, and his updated photo and personal information appear publicly on the registry. The stated purpose of the registry is “not to punish or stigmatize sex offenders, but rather to provide factual information that will allow adults in this community to make more informed decisions about whom they associate with or entrust their children to.”

During her confirmation hearing, Republicans singled out Hawkins’s sentence as one of her biggest deviations from federal guidelines.

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

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) alleged that Jackson’s decision was a mistake that endangered public safety, citing 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. “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 speculated.

Hawkins acknowledged that he had been in a “dark” place six years after his release from prison, having lost a job at a retail store. He did not dispute a probation petition — sealed in his case but described to The Post — that in 2019, he had searched for non-pornographic material and images of males 13- to 16-years-old, prompting Jackson to send him to the halfway house.

“As it clearly states in [my court file] it was not because I reoffended, it was not because I had done anything even illegal,” Hawkins told The Post. “According to the treatment I was in, they felt I was at a high risk of reoffending.”

Hawkins said he had held down a job for three years before he was laid off. He had just finished a run of a couple weeks as a temp worker when he decided to visit a relative this week at the house where a reporter located him.

His mornings had been filled with looking for his next job, his afternoons rereading one of his favorite books by Jamaican novelist Marlon James, he said, and his nights bingeing his favorite Netflix series, “The Last Kingdom.”

He said he leans on therapy, his family and faith to move forward.

Hawkins, who said he is gay, said he began looking at pornography while he was in high school.

“I was a troubled young man who was sexually confused,” Hawkins said. “I came from a neighborhood and a family that was very disapproving of homosexuality, and I thought that I couldn’t come to them because when I did, they would say, ‘This is wrong, don’t do it, point blank.’ ”

“I went online to other young people who had these images. That’s how it came about,” he said.

Hawkins said that almost a decade later, it was disorienting to hear U.S. senators invoke his name since his case hadn’t garnered even local media attention — attention he said his mother had worried about constantly when his case was in court.

“She was always saying, ‘What if someone comes to you about this,' and I said, ‘Mom, my case isn’t big enough for any kind of press.’ ”

Of the attention his case is getting now, Hawkins noted that many in the GOP continued to support candidates who faced allegations of sexual misconduct. “While I’m not defending my actions, because, again, they are undefendable, I feel that their hypocrisy should be pointed out.”

Perhaps most surprising, Hawkins said, was that he found himself feeling sympathy for the judge he had once been angry with for sending him to prison.

“I wasn’t very happy that she gave me three months, though, after reflection when I was in jail, I was hearing from other people who said it was their first time arrested and they got five years, six years.

“I feel that she chose to take into consideration the fact that I was just getting started [in life] and she knew this was going to hold me back for years to come regardless,” he said, “so she didn’t really want to add on to that.”

Alice Crites and Spencer S. Hsu 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.