As I told my interns this week, you can cover a lot of cases in Yolo County and not really see a huge problem with the system. There are plenty of cases where a clear crime has been committed, there is little doubt that the accused perpetrated that crime, and the charges are reasonable.
If you only watch one trial, you might not see anything wrong with the system, but unfortunately that perspective is misleading. It is like seeing a large healthy tree and not seeing the decaying forest around it.
Then there are cases like that of Edward Hendrix, who last week was acquitted of child molestation, a charge that had hung over his head since accusations first arose in October 2014. One might be tempted to see the acquittal and argue that the system worked, so what’s the problem.
Ironically enough, Mr. Hendrix in a lot of ways was fortunate. He was fortunate he had the resources to be able to bail himself out of custody, so he was not held in jail for a crime that he was ultimately found not to have committed. He was fortunate to be a resident of Yolo County, with a well-funded public defender’s office and an attorney who is as talented and tenacious as Deputy Public Defender Dan Hutchinson.
The problem is that the system did not work here. In many counties, Mr. Hendrix would have been convicted of this crime, sentenced not only to five years in prison but also a lifetime as a registered sex offender for a crime he did not commit.
As it was, Mr. Hendrix’s life for the past year had been a living nightmare, being accused of the unthinkable crime of molesting a then 12-year-old girl, a cheerleader in Woodland, who was coached by Mr. Hendrix’s fiancée.
This case started with an apparent lie by a 12-year-old as she texted her friends, and it snowballed into a nightmare. It was a case that started with lies, was perpetuated by bad police investigative work and compounded by aggressive prosecution, before finally being undone when the lies the accuser told collapsed under their internal contradictions.
Pardon my French, but this case was a cluster-f–. And it is a case that, without the Vanguard Court Watch, no one would have covered, and no one would have seen the problems in the system.
The problem started with a Woodland Police detective. Mr. Hendrix offered full cooperation and even offered to take a lie detector test. But the detective never even bothered to get Mr. Hendrix’s side of the story before arresting him. When asked on the stand by Mr. Hutchinson, the response was that she did not have time because she had “other cases” she was working on.
There are really two keys to this case. The first is that the accuser admitted to a number of lies – some of them actually quite inconsequential, but the frequency of the lies had to weigh on the jurors’ assessment of the credibility of her accusations.
In one exchange, the accuser admitted to lying to Deputy DA Michelle Serafin and DA Investigator Steve Gill about which friend she talked to first.
Mr. Hutchinson would ask, “Why did you lie to them?” The accuser responded, “Because I didn’t think it would be important.”
As Mr. Hutchinson put it, “When you have a Deputy District Attorney and investigator asking you questions about a criminal trial, didn’t it occur to you that might be important?”
Her response was, “Not really.”
I get it, she’s a kid and not really understanding the weight of what she was doing, but if she didn’t think it would be important, why would she lie about it? Why not just tell the truth?
And if you’re the jury listening to her casually shrugging off telling lies, are you really apt to believe her account?
At another point, Mr. Hutchinson, catching her in another lie, said, “So you just lied again when you told us that you have a clear memory of her being at the game?” And after the court overruled the objection by Ms. Serafin, a frustrated Dan Hutchinson said, “Do you understand you need to stop doing that?”
In the end, the story came apart not so much through being caught in admitted lies, but by the simple fact that the then 12-year-old was not able to make her account stand up to its own internal logic.
The problem in a case like this is that the only evidence of a crime was her claims – both the story that she told to investigators and on the witness stand, as well as the text messages that she exchanged at the time with her friends.
As Dan Hutchinson told the Vanguard, once they got the text messages and the phone records, “What she said happened could not have happened within the time period.”
When the accuser arrived at the home of the coach and Mr. Hendrix, Mr. Hendrix immediately placed a call to the coach, who was at a football game. That immediately started the clock at 7:41 pm. The call ended at 7:42. By the time the accuser text messaged her friend at 7:47, she said all this alleged stuff had already ended.
“So basically you have a five-minute window,” Mr. Hutchinson explained, “because (the accuser’s) grandmother went in the house and said she was in there for two to three minutes.” At this point Mr. Hendrix walked into his room, “so basically you have a one- to two-minute period when this could have happened.”
The sequence of events was that she went to watch TV, Mr. Hendrix allegedly comes out of his room with his shirt off, goes into the kitchen, grabs a shot glass, removes a bottle, pours himself a drink, walks over to her, asks her how old she is, tells her that she has a nice body for a 12-year-old…then hugs her, grabs her on her bottom, kisses her, and begins to unbuckle his belt, asking if they were going to do this.
In the meantime, the coach said during the original call that she was headed home and would be home in ten minutes. The accuser said that sequence took four to five minutes.
Mr. Hutchinson asked, “Do you believe it usually takes more than one minute to have sexual intercourse?”
There are a lot of contradictions in the girl’s account of what happened, including the fact that, after all this happened, she was reluctant to leave the house, even as her friends were trying to get her out. But the illogic of the time sequence, along with the fact that when all of this happened the coach was liable to walk in the door at any moment, makes this seem very far-fetched.
As Mr. Hutchinson put it, “She basically takes something that in her estimation took 11 to 14 minutes, and it would have had to have happened…in basically a two-minute time frame.”
One of the aspects of the case that was puzzling was the Instagram exchange with the use of the “N” word as a racial pejorative. The juror who posted on the Vanguard said it had no impact on their decision.
However, Mr. Hutchinson said, “It goes to explain in my opinion, why when she sees” Mr. Hendrix walk out of his room wearing a “wife beater” t-shirt, an extremely muscular man, “She’s suddenly alone with a black man. She testified how uncomfortable she was when she saw him walk out. Her initial thought went to her beliefs about how black men act. They’re sexually aggressive, they can’t control their impulses around white women.”
He said, “That’s what we saw in the Instagram.” He said, “I think that is what prompted her to send the first text message, saying, I think he’s trying to have sex with me.”
“She may have even believed that for an instant,” he said. “But I think all of the other text messages were her now showing off.”
Dan Hutchison said he never believed this was about her being prejudiced. The prosecution repeatedly asked her if she was prejudiced. He explained, “I never believed she hated black people. I just believe she had some very ignorant stereotypical (idea) of how black men act.”
He believed that was relevant and was what caused her to concoct this whole story.
Dan Hutchinson told me there was “no doubt” in his mind that Mr. Hendrix was actually innocent. That may not seem to mean that much, but in my seven years of covering court cases, probably in less than five has an attorney told me that they believe the client to be factually innocent. Bad evidence, overcharged, exaggerations, no proof beyond a reasonable doubt – those are frequent. Actual innocence is rare.
These are difficult cases. Mr. Hutchinson had a tough job to do – to cross-examine the young witness and expose the inaccuracy of her account. It could not have been enjoyable. At one point, Mr. Hutchinson implored Deputy DA Michelle Serafin and Judge Reed to put an end to this.
He said, “I would ask the People to consider ending this. This is wrong. This is wrong to Mr. Hendrix. This is wrong to that little girl.” He said, “I don’t enjoy doing this, but there is plenty more, and I’m inviting the People to do that now.”
Judge Richardson would say, “They decide what they want to do.”
Ms. Serafin was not about to end the case, however: “I think Mr. Hutchinson should stop making snide comments.”
In the end, justice worked, but that fact should not excuse the poor investigation from Woodland police nor should it excuse the DA looking the other way as huge holes in the accuser’s story were opened up by the defense. A more skeptical view of this incident by either would have ended the nightmare for Edward Hendrix long before the jury finally acquitted him on Friday of last week.
—David M. Greenwald reporting