POLITICS
01/23/2013 09:00 am ET | Updated Mar 25, 2013

The Innocence Penalty

After serving 15 years in prison for the crime of sexually assaulting his two children, a Utah judge has declared Kevin George Peterson factually innocent.

Peterson, 54, formerly of West Haven, now an Ogden truck driver, was sent to prison in early 1993 on charges alleging sexual contact short of rape. He moved back to the Ogden area when he was released from prison in November 2007.

Peterson’s lawsuit includes sworn affidavits from his two children, who say they were coerced by their mother and stepfather to tell authorities their father sexually molested them. The son and daughter were 11 and 9 at the time.

Peterson pleaded no contest to the second-degree felony charges, meaning he denied guilt but couldn’t defeat the state’s evidence.

Peterson's ex-wife and her new husband apparently can't be found and, according to this account, likely couldn't even be charged due to the statute of limitations. Alleging "sexual contact short of rape" of course meant the prosecution could convict Peterson without any real physical evidence. It was his word against his kids'. And what kid would lie about a thing like that?

More than you'd think. But here's an aspect of wrongful convictions that's often overlooked:

Peterson served the full 15 years of a one- to 15-year prison term for child molestation because he refused to admit guilt to the state Board of Pardons.

Call it the innocence penalty. Innocent people are of course much less likely to admit to the crimes for which they're accused --before and after conviction. (Although it still happens.) That "lack of remorse" often moves prosecutors to throw the book at them, judges to give them longer sentences, and paroles boards to keep them behind bars for as long as possible.

There are other, more subtle ways the innocent are often punished more severely than the guilty. A few years ago, Richard Paey -- a Florida man given basically a life sentence for his supply of painkillers, even though even prosecutors conceded he was likely using them only to treat his own pain -- told me about them.

I didn’t do very well in prison. Fortunately, one of the prison doctors was very kind to me. He said he saw in me what he called 'the consciousness of innocence.' It’s very dangerous. He said if you bring it into prison with you, you will have the most horrifying experience that a human being can possibly have. You won’t survive. You have to acclimate and accept your situation and not resist. You can’t keep holding on to your innocence. You have to let go of it and start acclimating.

Paey held on to his innocence, and fortunately was pardoned in 2007. But it isn't difficult to how other innocent people might chose a different path when given the opportunity.