By Josh Peterson, editor
A jury found College Street Elementary School teacher Gary Wilson Hawkins, 33, guilty of child abuse in Coffee County Circuit Court last Tuesday afternoon.
Sentencing has been set for December 18.
The verdict concludes a three-day trial that included dramatic testimony from a handful of middle-school-aged girls and video from a forensic interview in which Hawkins’ daughter explained the abuse to the Coffee County Children’s Advocacy Center.
“It was a very tough case for me … for all involved,” said Coffee County Assistant District Attorney Felicia Walkup, who prosecuted. “It is a very unusual circumstance when, as a prosecutor, your victim tells you that she doesn’t want her dad punished. She doesn’t want to be there. It’s very difficult and very rare to have the victim sitting behind the defense table.”
Hawkins used a belt in what his defense declared was a disciplinary spanking of the 12-year-old girl (now 13). But the jury agreed with the prosecution that the punishment crossed the line into child abuse after the juvenile turned up with dark bruising on her back, buttocks, legs and hands, as corroborated by photos presented to the court.
Authorities began investigating Hawkins last year on Oct. 19 after witnesses came forward and described excessive bruising and abrasions on the juvenile’s back, legs, buttocks and hands.
Hawkins taught fourth and fifth grade CDC (Comprehensive Development Classroom), or special education, at College Street Elementary School at the time of the incident, which was October 18, 2012. He was placed on administrative leave without pay at the time of the incident and remains on administrative leave without pay.
Walkup convinced the jury that Hawkins left excessive bruising on his daughter by spanking her with a belt and showed pictures of dark bruising to the jury as proof. The defense argued that Hawkins did spank his daughter, but the punishment wasn’t excessive. Hawkins did admit on the witness stand Monday that he did spank his daughter.
“She had been misleading us,” Hawkins testified under questioning from his defense attorney William Bullock. “We had asked her how her report card would look … We knew something wasn’t right. Something was underlying for her to make three C’s.
“We told her she could either miss the [basketball] game or take a spanking.”
Hawkins testified that his daughter chose a spanking and he gave her a total of six licks with a belt in two-lick intervals with “opportunities to tell the truth” during each break. He added that spanking is used “very rarely” and that it is the most severe form of punishment used in the home.
But the prosecution painted a very different picture and a video interview of the juvenile at the Coffee County Children’s Advocacy Center from the day after (Oct. 19, 2012) the incident was used to do so. The juvenile said in the video, which was played for jurors as part of the prosecution’s case, that “as soon as I gave [my report card] to my dad he went and got the belt.
“He came out and told me to bend over and then he just started swinging,” the juvenile said on the video from last October. “After like the 10th one I tried to tell him to stop that it was hurting. He wouldn’t stop. Finally I tried to put my hands where it wouldn’t hurt. Then mom told him to stop… Mom was in the kitchen, walked to the room and told him to stop
“He grabbed my hair and brought (inaudible) close and said if I ever made another C it would be worse.”
Walkup also played the beginning of the video to show jurors that the juvenile was asked open-ended questions, wasn’t coerced into answers, was comfortable in the setting and that she was aware of the video cameras in the room.
Walkup also called four juveniles to the stand to corroborate the marks left on the girl. Three of the juveniles testified to seeing marks on Hawkins’ daughter. Some admitted to crying when they saw them and some testified to seeing the juvenile visibly in pain at school the day after the incident.
“She was black and blue with bruises,” said one juvenile, who said she saw the marks when Hawkins’ daughter showed them to her but asked her “not to tell.”
“You could see a belt buckle imprinted,” one juvenile added.
One juvenile called to testify by the prosecution said that the victim was “blue, black, green and purple.
“I went and I told my mom,” the juvenile continued to testify. “I was crying. I told my mom not to tell anybody.”
Walkup praised the juveniles, whose names are protected because they are under 18, for coming forward and disclosing what they saw.
“Reflecting back on it, I certainly applaud those young ladies willing to come forward and make the disclosure they made last year,” Walkup said after the trial. “I really tip my hat to those young ladies. I know it was not easy for them. Had it not been for their concern it may not have come to light.”
The defense did not cross-examine any of the juveniles except for the victim, whose story did not match her video testimony to the children’s advocacy center. The victim said that she “exaggerated during the interview” and added that she “blamed herself” for the circumstances surrounding her father’s trial. On the witness stand her version of events lined up with the story given by Gary Hawkins and his wife Tabitha Hawkins.
The defense asserted that the juvenile exaggerated because Gary Hawkins wouldn’t allow her to participate in social media sites or have boyfriends.
The juvenile’s mom, Tabitha Hawkins, testified and corroborated Gary Hawkins’ version of events. Both Tabitha and Gary Hawkins testified that the juvenile was spanked in a controlled manner in the living room and that both parents were present.
But Tabitha Hawkins admitted during her testimony that she was dishonest to the Department of Children’s Services when questioned about her daughter’s injuries on Oct. 19, 2012.
Tabitha Hawkins admitted to telling DCS officials that she was the one who spanked the juvenile. When asked by Walkup why she didn’t say her husband did it, Tabitha Hawkins said, “to be honest, I was late for work.” She added, “we are team parents. I looked at it as we gave her a spanking together.”
Walkup used that discrepancy in her closing arguments Tuesday morning.
“[Tabitha Hawkins'] actions speak volumes,” an emotional Walkup said to the jury in closing arguments. “When asked about [the juvenile's] physical condition, what does [Tabitha Hawkins] say? I did it. I spanked her. If it’s not a big deal, why doesn’t she say my husband spanked [her]? She knew it was a big deal. She knew he crossed the line.”
During his closing arguments, Bullock said, “[Gary Hawkins] is not intentionally abusing his daughter. He has the right to discipline her.”
Both sides began and wrapped up closing arguments Tuesday morning and, after specific instructions from Judge Craig Johnson, the jury began deliberations at approximately 10:30 a.m. and returned a verdict at approximately 4:30 p.m. Johnson told the jury that corporal punishment was a legal form of punishment in Tennessee and that they “must determine if the corporal punishment reached a level of child abuse.”
The conviction is a Class A Misdemeanor, which carries a maximum of 11 months, 29 days in jail and/or a $2,500 fine. Gary Hawkins is represented by Bullock and Caleb McCain. Sentencing is set for Dec. 18.
“It will be up to Judge Johnson to make a decision as to what sentencing will be,” said Walkup when asked if the state was pursuing a particular sentence.
Status with the school
Director of Manchester City Schools Dr. Keith Brewer said Gary Hawkins has been on administrative leave without pay for nearly a year. Even though he doesn’t draw a paycheck from the system or teach in the classroom, Hawkins is still taking advantage of medical benefits offered by the school system, Brewer said.
Because he doesn’t draw a paycheck Hawkins has to pay for his portion of the benefits but the portion covered by the employer is still being paid. Brewer added that the medical insurance is currently being paid by someone in the Hawkins family.
“We will wait until after the sentencing then we would have to take some form of action,” said Brewer. “I will probably want to talk to him in the next couple of days and my discussion with him will be: what are his next steps?”