Stephen Hatchett: A real life crime fighter
by WILLIAM WRIGHT, Lifestyles Editor
Jan 09, 2011 | 4654 views | 0 0 comments | 31 31 recommendations | email to a friend | print
FAIR WARNING — Stephen Hatchett, assistant district attorney, offered some free advice to anyone pursuing a life of crime in Bradley County: “Move,” he said. “Sooner or later you’re going to get caught. We have some outstanding officers throughout our district who work really hard. You need to turn from a life of crime or move out of the 10th Judicial District.” Banner photos, WILLIAM WRIGHT
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If your lifestyle includes a life of crime, Assistant District Attorney Stephen Hatchett said your best career move would be to move out of the 10th Judicial District.

Hatchett said 2011 and beyond will not be good years for criminals in Cleveland/Bradley County and offered legal insight into what is about to change and why.

In a no-holds-barred interview with the single, 34-year-old minister of American justice, Hatchett spoke candidly about which specific crimes have become major issues in the D.A.’s office, how he feels about them, what is right and what is wrong with the judicial system and how it might be fixed.

The Monroe County native, known for his ability to cut through unnecessary red tape and legal grandstanding to resolve cases expeditiously, said the criminal justice system in Bradley County is cracking down on child pornography and sexting, which is “becoming a huge issue” locally.

“The thing we’re struggling with right now is sexting,” Hatchett said. “We’re putting out a new policy this month to address that. The legislature has not caught up. Unfortunately, the law always lags behind technology.

“We’re really having an issue with what to do with these kids who are taking naked pictures of themselves and sending them to their boyfriend or girlfriend. Here’s the thing — You’ll get a 12- or 13-year-old girl who thinks she’s in love with this 13- or 14-year-old boy and she snaps a nude picture of herself and sends it.

“Well, when she snaps that picture, she just created child pornography. When she sends that picture, she’s trafficking child pornography, and when her boyfriend receives it, he’s in possession of child pornography.”

Hatchett said such indiscretions by youths and even some adults “could potentially ruin their lives” because the picture is not going away in cyberspace and there’s no telling where it might surface.

“Five years from now when that 13-year-old girl is applying to college, what if that picture turns up?,” he asked. “Or four years later when she wants to get into medical school or law school — what if that picture turns up?

“It’s kids making the same bad decisions they’ve always made but now technology allows it to be captured, to be preserved. Who knows when it will turn up? That’s one of the main areas we’re having problems with.”

According to Hatchett, if there is an area the D.A.’s office has shifted its focus on in the last six months, it’s child pornography in Bradley County.

“The sheriff’s office has the Internet Crimes Against Children Unit, the ICAC unit,” said Hatchett. “If there’s an area we’re cracking down on, we’re cracking down on child pornography — adults possessing and trafficking in child pornography. We’re coming after that pretty hard.”

The Bradley County Internet Crimes Against Children Unit is responsible for searching and investigating websites and identifies offender’s computer files for evidence of child pornography and other sex crimes against juveniles. Hatchett said there is a high incidence of child pornography possession in Tennessee and in Bradley County in particular.

“There’s a lot of people here who go online and download child pornography and if we catch you, we’re going to get you,” he said adamantly. The prosecutor for the # 10th Judicial District added that anyone aware of such exploitation or solicitation should report it to the Cleveland Police Department or the Bradley County Sheriff’s Office.

While he explained how motive plays a major role in prosecuting most crimes, there is no compromise when it comes to certain sex crimes, according to Hatchett.

“In every case we look at — we look at it to make a determination about why that person did what they did,” he said. “That’s the entire case right there — why. Why did they do it? In some cases, a few, you don’t even worry about that.”

“Child abuse? We don’t care why they did it. I don’t care. Aggravated child abuse? I don’t care why you did it. It’s doesn’t matter. Those two right there — child sexual abuse and child abuse — we don’t care why you did it. You can tell your lawyer, tell your priest — tell whoever you want why you did it. We don’t care.”

What Hatchett does care about, however, is the future of the criminal justice system, how to improve it and a greater awareness by the public of its limitations.

“I think sometimes people come away disappointed in what they get from the justice system,” said Hatchett. “We can’t always do what people want. At the end of the day we can’t make things go back to the way they were. We can only hold the people accountable who did whatever they did.

“We don’t have the ability to put things completely right. We are limited to seeing that people are punished, that people are held accountable. If we can get restitution for a person whose house was broken into, we’ll do it. But in the case of violent crimes, we can’t bring back a person who has been murdered. We can’t heal a rape victim. All we can do is try to punish the person who committed the crime.”

Hatchett, whose family has lived in Monroe County for 200 years, admits the criminal justice system is far from being a cure-all for criminal behavior and points to a more profound reason for today’s increase in lawlessness.

“There is a complete breakdown — in my opinion — of morals in this country. You cannot legislate morality but there is no legal system on this earth that will take the place of morality.

“If people don’t have something in them telling them the correct way to behave other than the law — the law cannot keep them on the straight and narrow. The legal system is reactive, not proactive. What you see today is the criminal justice system being absolutely overburdened.

“There are too many crimes. There are too many criminals. There is not enough prison space. That’s not the problem with the criminal justice system but that is a problem that is impacting the criminal justice system.

There’s nothing I as a public servant can do to fix it. I can’t say, ‘You need to be in church Sunday morning.’ I can’t order that as part of a sentence. Would that make a difference? I think it would.”

People being more involved in their community, parents spending more time with their kids, knowing where they are, who they are dating and what they are watching, could also impact crime and delinquency, according to the assistant district attorney.

Hatchett confessed the biggest problem, in his opinion, with the criminal justice system itself is, “We do not communicate clearly with the public the issues and concerns that we see.”

He said some politicians take a “knee-jerk reaction” to increases in crime and set out to pass harsher laws and send more people to prison.

“That’s not the solution,” he insists. “We need more communication coming from criminal justice professionals — coming from judges, D.A.s, police officers — to the public.”

While Hatchett admits he has prosecuted many criminals that resulted in prison sentences, he said he still believes in people’s ability to change given the proper resources.

“What if we put more money into rehabilitation and get (juveniles) something other than a prison sentence? Nobody likes hearing that. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve sent a lot of people to prison and I’ve sent people for some pretty long stretches. But there’s more to the criminal justice system than just saying ‘You’re going to prison.’”

While looking at both sides of the judicial coin, Hatchett reflected on and related a story he heard from Southern humorist Jerry Clower about a group of hunters. One climbs a tree to knock what he thinks is a raccoon out of the tree. The raccoon turns out to be a lynx.

“So the guy gets into a fight with it in the tree,” Hatchett said, smiling. “He starts telling the guys on the ground to shoot up in the tree. The guys say, ‘We can’t because we might hit you!’ The man shouts, ‘Just shoot up here among us because one of us has to have some relief!’”

Hatchett then explained, “Sometimes you have to have some relief from some of these criminals. We’ve got to get them out of here because law enforcement needs a break.

“Some days I feel like my job is pushing back a huge ocean of garbage with a squeegee. You have the good people who want to live their lives and you have the people who don’t care — who commit crimes and they’re never going to change. All we do is keep that pushed back. We keep pushing it back.”

His advice to such defendants coming to court is, “If you did it, plead guilty so you don’t waste the court’s time.” Hatchett also encouraged victims to stay in close contact with the prosecutor and share every detail they can remember about the crime or the criminal.

“We’ve actually dismissed cases because we can’t find the victim,” he said. “They moved and didn’t leave a forwarding address or they forgot to tell us they have a new phone number. So we’re looking for them and can’t find them. Now it’s time for court and we have to dismiss the case. The judge asks why and we say, ‘We can’t find them. We don’t know where they went.’

“That’s probably the biggest thing. If you’re a victim of a crime, stay in contact with our office. Make sure we know how to get a hold of you. The best thing is to call and talk to the prosecutor assigned to the case. There’s no other reason for us to be here than to prosecute people for the taxpayers of this county.”

Although he is tough on crime and knows how to cut to the heart of his cases, Hatchett says the D.A.’s office is committed to seeking justice rather than prosecution arbitrarily.

“We acquit more people in a week than every defense lawyer in this entire district does in a year,” Hatchett said. “That’s no exaggeration. Our job is to seek justice.

“If you go into Sessions Court and you get an affidavit of complaint and you read it and you bring the defendant up and the defendant wants to give you his or her side of the story — at the end of hearing from the two sides, a good prosecutor will know what he or she has, and know how to handle it.”

Knowing how to separate what one defense attorney called “the wheat from the chaff” has made Hatchett a sharp instrument in the criminal justice system.