Sentenced to probation: Young New Haven woman wins legal battle but feels the criminal justice system has failed her
After a 16-month battle with the legal system, a 19-year-old New Haven resident — described by her friends and family as a devoted student and “beautiful person” — was sentenced to two years of probation last Thursday on charges of obstruction of justice.
According to a press release by the Connecticut U.S. Attorney’s Office, Diavion “Avi” Hutchings leaked a New Haven Police Department interview with a witness last April, recording portions of the interview on her phone and sharing them through Facebook Live and text message. The footage, which included discussions of gang activity, incriminated her boyfriend of three months.
In June 2019, Hutchings, who had no prior criminal record, was arrested for leaking the witness tape and subsequently released after posting a $10,000 bond. This past June — one year after her arrest — Hutchings pled guilty to an obstruction of justice charge filed by the U.S. Attorney for the District of Connecticut, John Durham. She was sentenced to two years’ probation on Thursday.
In Thursday’s proceedings, prosecutors argued that Hutchings, by leaking the interview, intentionally put the informant in danger. But Hutchings’ defense attorney emphasized that she was an ambitious young woman who had suffered significant family trauma, including the death of her father and grandmother.
Hutchings and her mother told the News that she has been and continues to be constantly monitored by law enforcement, and that the process has stripped her of many of her ambitions.
“Honestly, I still feel like the case isn’t over,” Hutchings said. “I don’t really post on social media anymore, I don’t really go outside and just be a regular teen. I went through that whole process for so long. I really changed.”
One New Haven police officer declined to comment for this story, and the department did not respond to a request for comment. The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Connecticut could not be reached.
Hutchings’ case was prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorneys Maria del Pilar Gonzalez and Sarah P. Karwan, who is the criminal division chief of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Connecticut.
Throughout the hearing, Gonzalez argued that when Hutchings leaked the confidential interview, she deliberately endangered the life of the original 17-year-old witness. Gonzalez then asked U.S. District Judge Janet Hall to sentence Hutchings to 10 to 16 months in prison –– partly in order to make an example out of her, the New Haven Independent reported.
“[The informant] now will probably never be able to safely live in New Haven,” Gonzalez told Hall. “Even a short period of incarceration sends a message that … this kind of behavior is abhorrent to the criminal justice system and it cannot be tolerated.”
But while Gonzalez claimed that Hutchings intentionally threatened the witness’s life, Judge Hall said Hutchings’ actions were nothing more than a joke.
An atypical case?
Because the original interview involved federal authorities, Hutchings’ case involved the Department of Justice and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, or ATF — an unusual occurrence for such a young defendant.
“I haven’t heard of a case like this before,” explained Yale Law School clinical associate professor Miriam Gohara, who has litigated cases in federal court. “It’s unusual that the federal government is prosecuting someone this young — she’s still a teenager.”
Hutchings’ lawyer Ted Koch portrayed Hutchings — to the News and to Judge Hall — as a young person who has worked very hard in her life but has made mistakes as the result of the lack of resources available to her community. He pointed to the fact that Hutchings has been working for companies like Walmart, McDonald’s, DoorDash and Amazon since she was 16 years old.
“It wasn’t until I saw her hanging out with [my family] that I realized she’s just a kid, just like my son,” Koch said. “This whole system of sentencing policies, which are set up for adults, are just not applicable to kids.”
Hutchings’ mother, Alexis Hutchings, similarly emphasized the abnormality of her daughter’s case, and told the News she had been almost certain her daughter was going to end up in prison.
She said that an ATF officer harassed Hutchings, telling her that though she did not belong on “the streets,” he was “not going to give up until she was in jail.” New Haven police are also partially responsible, she said, for “forcing” the crying 17-year-old witness to provide testimony in the first place. NHPD did not respond to a request for comment and ATF could not be reached.
The court of public opinion
The press shoulders a significant portion of the blame for her daughter’s current situation, Hutchings’ mother told the News. She specifically cited a New Haven Independent article titled “No Prison For ‘Snitching’ On a ‘Snitch.’”
“That’s not correct,” said Hutchings’ mother. “They used the prosecutor’s words, wrote an article out of it and made it a headline. Think of how that sounds to people on the street.”
Hutchings’ mother explained a general expectation of loyalty in her community called “sticking to the code.” This is a practice where members of the community do not expose the actions of others to law enforcement if they engage in criminal activity. She said that the article’s wording was misleading, prompting community members to send her family screenshots of its headline.
The headline, according to Hutchings’ mother, put her family “in harm’s way” –– implying that her daughter was a “snitch.” She said that as her family lives in an area of high crime, inaccurate headlines could put them in imminent danger. Though Hutchings did share the Facebook video, her mother said that leaking the interview is not what community members would perceive as “snitching.”
But according to New Haven Independent editor Paul Bass, the article accurately reflected Hutchings’ case, including his understanding that she didn’t “snitch.”
“The article explored the ways the case touched on the ‘no snitching’ culture and made clear that the defendant was charged with exposing the identity of a person who cooperated with police,” Bass said. ”I agree that the defendant appears to have stuck with the ‘no snitching’ code.”
A community-wide issue
Young people like Hutchings don’t get caught up in the legal system on their own, professor Gohara and Koch said.
Rather, divestment from schools, social services and after-school programs contribute to the disproportionate impact of the judicial system on low-income communities of color in the Elm City. For example, a Big Brother Big Sister program that Hutchings’ mother participated in as a child no longer exists, she told the News.
That divestment, Koch said, creates difficult conditions for children in many parts of New Haven — including Hutchings. According to Koch, after Hutchings ended a shift at Walmart earlier this year, a friend of hers asked her to give a ride to two people she did not know. On the way, they got into a car accident. Koch said that the individuals exited Hutchings’ car and began shooting at the other car.
“It shows how hard it is for kids from certain parts of New Haven to live a normal life,” Koch told the News.
Hutchings’ mother said that law enforcement, federal prosecutors and the court did not offer adequate help, such as with mental health treatment for her daughter. She also noted that this lack of support extends beyond her daughter’s case and is a general problem for young people in New Haven.
A future for Hutchings
Hutchings, who is now a high school senior, plans to finish school. She’s happy not to be in prison, she told the News, and is excited about her new nursing job — but her plans for the future have been shattered.
“[The case] kinda ruined my dreams to become a lawyer,” Hutchings said, noting that her criminal record now makes that an impossibility. “So I just went and settled for a paralegal.”
Curnijah Howard, a close friend of Hutchings, explained that she has spent time with Hutchings since her initial arrest and even moved in with her for support and comfort.
“I could see Avi — she wasn’t herself,” Howard said. “I would see her moods change from her being happy in a conversation to going to this dark phase where nobody cares for her.”
Howard said the next two years would continue to be full of unfettered surveillance of Hutchings’ family — and possibly Howard herself. Prosecutors have been monitoring her online because of her friendship with Hutchings, she told the News. After Howard made a congratulatory post following Thursday’s sentencing, a federal prosecutor who saw the post contacted Koch claiming Hutchings was being “disrespectful” for having her middle finger up in the picture.
Hutchings’ mother said that the charges have clearly impacted her daughter’s behavior. She said Hutchings barely leaves the house and sleeps in the same bed as herself for comfort and safety.
As she begins her two years of probation, Hutchings’ travel between home, school and work will be restricted.
Talat Aman | email@example.com