Hawley attacked Ketanji Brown Jackson’s ‘alarming’ record on sex offenders. He agreed to an abuser getting only probation

The former Missouri attorney general faced criticism for his own handling of sex abuse cases

Alex Woodward
New York
Friday 25 March 2022 13:38
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Ketanji Brown Jackson vows to serve ‘without fear or favour’ at first Supreme Court confirmation hearing

Before Senate confirmation hearings for US Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson, Republican Senator Josh Hawley announced plans to question the US District Court judge over what he characterised as her lenient “treatment of sex offenders, especially those preying on children.”

He posted a 17-part Twitter thread in which he alleged Judge Jackson maintained an “alarming pattern” of excusing crimes committed by sex offenders and people guilty of possessing child sex abuse images, allegations amplified by the Republican National Committee and right-wing outlets.

In a column for Fox News, he wrote that downward deviations from federal sentencing guidelines in such cases are an “epidemic” and “a betrayal of our democracy.”

The senator, who has not served as a judge, was involved with prosecuting sex crime cases as Missouri’s attorney general from 2017 to 2019, including a case in which a county sheriff admitted to sexually abusing a woman.

His sentencing called for two years in prison. He was released on probation.

In 2018, Mr Hawley’s office was appointed to serve as special prosecutor in a sex abuse and domestic assault case involving the sheriff of Knox County.

According to a probable cause statement filed with the Knox County Circuit Clerk by a representative of then-Attorney General Hawley’s office, Robert Becker had a “violent” history with the victim, who alleged that Becker “choked” her with a shirt in December 2017.

In April 2018, the sheriff’s department searched the woman’s home. Becker accompanied the search.

While officers looked through the property, Becker stood in front of the woman while she was looking for items in a bathroom, then “removed his penis from his pants and put his penis” in the woman’s mouth without her consent, according to the complaint.

Becker resigned and was charged with a misdemeanor count of domestic assault and misdemeanor sexual abuse, crimes punishable up to one year in prison.

The case was not brought to trial. Under a plea agreement, Becker served no jail time and was placed on two years’ probation.

“There is no place for law enforcement officers who abuse their power,” Mr Hawley said in a statement at the time. “As a result of today’s plea, Mr Becker can no longer serve in any law enforcement capacity. The Knox County community is safer as a result of today’s action.”

Mr Hawley stepped down from office in January 2019 following his election to the US Senate.

His successor, Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt, tried to revoke Becker’s probation agreement and have him sentenced to jail for two years, after Becker was charged with illegally using a firearm to shoot quail on a highway just one week after his sentencing.

In November 2020, a judge ruled that Becker failed to complete mandatory sex offender counseling as required under his plea agreement, sentencing him to 20 days in jail.

As Missouri’s attorney general, Mr Hawley also established a Human Trafficking Task Force.

Last year, one member of the task force accused him of “putting his career before sex trafficking victims,” leveraging publicity with a focus on offenders rather than working to protect survivors, and using an “anti-trafficking platform and dedicated people as pawns to gain public recognition for himself.”

“Though we did not expect Hawley would lead every meeting, his involvement became negligible after the second time we gathered. Some of our initiatives were ignored or delayed by his absence,” Pam Hamilton wrote in a column for The Kansas City Star.

An attorney for survivors of people who claim to have been sexually abused by priests in Missouri also said Mr Hawley rejected her demands for an investigation.

“I stood outside your office with survivors of childhood sexual abuse to ask you to organize an investigation into abuses within the Catholic Church in Missouri,” attorney Nicole Gorovsky wrote in a letter to his office in August 2018.

“We asked for an investigation like the one that occurred in Pennsylvania which revealed over 300 perpetrators and likely over 1,000 victims,” she said. “You responded that you did not have the power to do such an investigation.”

But that month, Mr Hawley said he accepted an invitation from Archbishop Robert Carlson to open an investigation, saying that the church’s cooperation would allow a “thorough, fair, impartial and indeed vigorous investigation – that’s exactly what we intend to do.”

“Facts are powerful things,” he told reporters. “And what the public wants, above [all] else, is they want an accounting. They want an accounting of the facts.”

Ms Gorovsky wrote that his announcement was “exactly backward.”

“Allowing the accused wrongdoer to pick and choose what will be provided in an investigation of his wrongdoing is not an investigation at all,” she said. “It is certainly not what I was asking for as I stood outside your office … and I do not believe it is what survivors of clergy abuse want either.”

During confirmation hearings in the Senate Judiciary Committee this week, Senators Hawley and Ted Cruz questioned several cases involving child sex abuse images that they believed were far below what federal sentencing guidelines establish and prosecutors request.

The judge repeatedly explained that federal judges do not simply follow the guidelines or requests from prosecutors in determining sentences but pull from a host of factors, and which jurists, legislators and the US Department of Justice have largely agreed recommend sentences that are too severe.

She also explained that the federal guidelines for such defendants were set when child sex abuse image cases were crimes mostly committed without the internet and computers, which now compose an overwhelming majority of such cases.

Mr Hawley’s critics have accused his questioning of selectively pulling from her record or raising dog-whistle talking points to gain an emotional response from his supporters and right-wing conspiratorial followers who have followed a years-long rabbit hole of baseless child sex trafficking allegations against Democratic figures.

The White House called Senator Hawley’s line of questioning a “QAnon-signaling smear”. Former assistant US Attorney and conservative National Review columnist Andrew McCarthy said his arguments is “meritless to the point of demagoguery.”

At least six federal judges appointed by former president Donald Trump also failed to meet the same sentencing standards set by Senator Hawley in more than a dozen child sex abuse image cases, according to The Washington Post.

Among them was Amul Thapar, who was on Mr Trump’s shortlist of potential Supreme Court nominees.

In one case, he set a 30-year prison sentence he said “accurately reflects all the statutory purposes of sentencing.”

“Now the question is, is this a variance below the guidelines, and I think it is,” he said. “And I guess I have to justify it. I think I have justified it sufficiently.”

The Independent has requested comment from the senator’s office.

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